Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Five times Game Two was the Stanley Cup final turning point

The Nashville Predators suffered one of the strangest losses in Stanley Cup final history on Monday, erasing a 3-0 deficit while holding the Penguins without a shot for 37 straight minutes before allowing a back-breaking winning goal late in the third.

The way they lost was bad enough. But just losing at all is a big deal. After all, as we're constantly told, the team that wins Game 1 in the final wins almost 80 percent the series, including each of the last five. To hear some tell it, this one's basically over.

It's tough times to be a Nashville fan. So as we head into Wednesday's crucial second game, let's offer up some hope for anyone rooting for the Predators. Here are five times in Stanley Cup final history that Game 1 didn't end up mattering, and Game 2 turned out to be the series turning point.

1986 – Canadiens vs. Flames

After one game: Calgary went into the final sporting a distinct "team of destiny" feel. After years of living in the Oilers' shadow, the Flames had knocked off their provincial rivals in seven games on Steve Smith's infamous own goal. They arrived in the final holding home ice advantage, and opened the series with a convincing 5-2 win over the Canadiens.

But then: Looking to take a 2-0 series lead back to Montreal, the Flames opened the scoring in the first and added another goal just seconds into the second period. But they let the Habs off the mat, as Montreal came back to send the game to overtime. Once they got there, it didn't take long to make some history.

Brian Skrudland's overtime goal was the fastest in playoff history, and knotted the series at a game apiece.

The rest of the way: The Canadiens didn't drop another game in the series, winning three straight tight ones to take the Stanley Cup in five games.

1974 – Flyers vs. Bruins

After one game: The Bruins and Flyers had been the league's two best teams by a wide margin during the season, with Boston earning home ice throughout the playoffs by a single point thanks to a win on the season's final day. They cashed in on that home ice advantage in Game 1, when Bobby Orr's goal with seconds left in regulation gave them a 3-2 win and a series lead.

But then: The Bruins came out strong in Game 2, scoring twice late in the first to take a 2-0 lead to intermission. The Flyers closed the gap with a goal in the second, but couldn't get any closer as regulation ticked away. But with the Bruins on the verge of taking a two-game lead in the series, Andre Dupont tied it with less than a minute to play, sending the game to overtime. That's where Bobby Clarke scored what may well be the most important goal in franchise history.

The rest of the way: The Flyers would ride the momentum from Clarke's goal to a pair of wins on home ice. The Bruins avoided elimination in Game 5 in Boston, but the Flyers closed the series with a 1-0 win back in Philadelphia, earning the franchise's first Stanley Cup and becoming the first modern expansion team to capture a championship.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ranking the NHL's greatest Cinderella stories

On paper, the Stanley Cup Final looks like a classic battle between a team of unexpected underdogs and the powerhouse defending champs. The Pittsburgh Penguins are gunning for their second straight title, while the Nashville Predators have made the final despite finishing just 16th overall during the regular season. So far, the Predators’ playoff run is shaping up like a classic Cinderella story.

The NHL has seen more than a few such stories over the years, although (spoiler alert) they almost never end well. So today, let’s rank history’s best Cinderella stories.

We’ll go back to the advent of the 16-team playoff era in 1980, and we’ll define a Cinderella as a team that finished outside the top 10 in the regular-season standings but still made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. (We’ll also slip in one other team that fell outside that category but are widely considered a Cinderella team anyway.)

Underdog status: Just how unlikely a finalist were they? None of these teams were expected to make a deep run, but some were more surprising than others.

Road to the final: Did they have a relatively easy trip through the playoffs, or did they have to fight and scrape through every round? The harder the journey, the higher the ranking.

Final chapter: Once they got to the final, how close did they come to winning it all?

Enduring image: Years after the run is over, what (if anything) still sticks with hockey fans?

Then we'll add it all up and crown an all-time Cinderella team. But we'll work our way down, which means we start in the pre-cap days.

13. 2001-02 Hurricanes

Underdog status: 7/10. The Hurricanes had finished 16th overall. But based on winning the lowly Southeast Division, they went into the playoffs as the East's third seed.

Road to the final: 6/10. They knocked off the Devils, Canadiens and Maple Leafs, each in six games. The Carolina/Montreal matchup took place in round two and featured the two playoff teams with the worst record, in case you thought the NHL playoff format being screwy was some sort of new development.

Final chapter: 5/10. Everybody assumed the Hurricanes had no chance against a Red Wings team packed with Hall of Famers. Everyone was right.

Enduring image: 1/10. None. Seriously, other than maybe Igor Larionov's overtime goal, nobody remembers anything about this series.

Final score: 19/40. This one doesn't hold up well, at least partly because the Hurricanes came back and won the Cup just four years later.

12. 2015-16 Sharks

Underdog status: 6/10. The Sharks finished 11th overall and were the West's sixth seed. And maybe more importantly, they came in dragging all of the baggage of years of playoff failure.

Road to the final: 6/10. They started strong, knocking out their arch-rivals and killing off at least a few playoff demons by dispatching the Kings in five games. They actually had home ice in the second round against the Predators, who they beat in seven, before eliminating the Blues in six.

Final chapter: 5/10. The Sharks played the Penguins tough but never really seemed like they'd win. They dropped the first two games in Pittsburgh and trailed 3-1 after four games before ultimately bowing out in six.

Enduring image: 3/10. Joe Thornton's playoff beard, which he's apparently just decided to keep.

Final score: 20/40. Maybe the Sharks are just too recent, or maybe the modern age of parity has made Cinderella stories tougher to appreciate. But the Sharks feel more like a good team that fell short than a memorable underdog.

11. 2013-14 Rangers

Underdog status: 2/10. Wait, were the Rangers a Cinderella team? That seems wrong; this team was in the middle of a stretch that saw New York make it to the conference final in three out of four seasons. But this year's team finished 12th overall, so they meet our cutoff even though they opened on home ice.

Road to the final: 9/10. It's hard to take a longer path to the final than the Rangers did. They knocked off the Flyers and Penguins in seventh games, then needed six games (and a controversial Carey Price injury) to knock off the Canadiens.

Final chapter: 4/10. The Rangers fell to the Kings in just five games. But it was closer than it sounds, with three of their losses coming in overtime.

Enduring image: 8/10. A devastated Henrik Lundqvist, slumped on the ice after Alec Martinez's Cup-winning goal.

Final score: 23/40. The Rangers had most of the elements of a classic Cinderella story, even if they never really felt like one.

10. 1981-82 Canucks

Underdog status: 7/10. They finished under .500, racking up just 77 points on the season. That was still good for 11th overall, and fourth in the Campbell Conference, because back then everyone didn't get points for losing.

Road to the final: 3/10. Amazingly, the Canucks made it all the way to the final without ever playing a single .500 team. They knocked off the Flames, Kings and Hawks, losing just two games in the process. The Cup final would prove slightly more challenging.

Final chapter: 4/10. The Canucks drew the Islanders, who'd already won two straight Cups. It didn't take them long to make it three, as they swept Vancouver aside in four straight.

Enduring image: 9/10. Roger Nielson waving the white towel at the officials in the Chicago series:

The moment has since been immortalized by a statue outside of Rogers Arena.

Final score: 23/40. Realistically, they never had a chance, but they were still fun along the way.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, May 29, 2017

A team-by-team rooting guide to the Stanley Cup final

We’re now just a few hours away from the start of the 2017 Stanley Cup final, pitting the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Nashville Predators. It’s a classic battle between the powerhouse defending champs and an inspiring Cinderella story, and plenty of fans have already picked sides.

But not everyone. Some fans insist on remaining neutral, which is fine. But others might want to root for one team or another, but can’t figure out which way to lean. After all, there’s a lot to like about both teams. If you haven’t decided who you’ll root for yet, you’re rapidly running out of time to make your decision.

We’re here to help. So today, we’ll go through the 29 other NHL franchises and offer up team-by-team recommendations for any fans who are still sitting on the fence and looking for a last-minute bandwagon to hop on. These are, it should go without saying, merely suggestion, but they might be of assistance for the more indecisive fans out there.

Chicago Blackhawks

Blackhawks fans may not want to cheer on the Predators, a division rival who swept them out of the first round. But they should, for a couple of reasons. For one, a Nashville Cup win takes some of the sting out of that opening-round upset. But more importantly, a Penguins' win strips Chicago of their status as the NHL's unquestioned modern dynasty. The Penguins wouldn't just tie the Hawks with three cap-era Cup wins, they'd do it by pulling of the back-to-back wins that have so far eluded Chicago. That should have Blackhawks fans backing the Predators, if only to protect their own turf at the top of the NHL's hierarchy.

Pick: Predators

Los Angeles Kings

The once-mighty Kings have won just a single playoff game in three years, and just overhauled their front office and coaching ranks. Now, the Penguins are threatening to pass them in cap-era Cups won. Much like the Blackhawks, Kings fans need to protect their turf here.

Pick: Predators

Colorado Avalanche

There was a time back in the ’90s when the Penguins were one of the best teams in hockey, winning a pair of Stanley Cups. But then the franchise fell on hard times, eventually plunging all the way to dead last overall in 2004. The Avalanche have followed a similar trajectory, and are coming off a season even worse than any nadir the Penguins ever hit. If you're a Colorado fan looking for any hope you can cling to these days, watching the Penguins win another Cup would serve as a reminder that there is a path from rock bottom back to the promised land.

Pick: Penguins

Montreal Canadiens

Come on.

New York Islanders

The Islanders' season was a rough one. They missed the playoffs, fired their coach, and had to endure another round of arena drama and speculation about their future. At times, it feels like this franchise is a million miles away from winning anything. After all that, Islanders fans have a chance to watch the Stanley Cup be awarded to a team that posted the exact same 41-29-12 regular-season record that they did. That might not make the season a success, but it would make the whole "We're not as far away as we seem" story a lot easier to swallow. Besides, they can root for former coach Peter Laviolette, who was once fired by Mike Milbury because he clearly wasn't the sort of coach who could take a team to the final.

Pick: Predators

Florida Panthers

The Panthers still owe the rest of the hockey world some penance for shocking the Penguins in 1996 and costing us a Mario Lemieux-vs.-Patrick Roy showdown in the Stanley Cup final. Rooting for Jaromir Jagr's old team is the least they can do.

Pick: Penguins

Ottawa Senators

This is a tricky one. Sens fans getting behind the Penguins just days after a heart-breaking Game 7 loss would be a big ask, and you could forgive Ottawa if the city united behind the Predators finishing the job that they couldn't. (Longtime Senators favourite Mike Fisher chasing his first Cup helps here, too.)

But that feels shortsighted. If the Penguins win it all, Senators fans can always claim they were one overtime goal away from going on to do the same. A Predators win takes some of the drama out of that epic overtime. Besides, it's not like the series against the Penguins was especially heated. And in a way, the Penguins and Senators are linked by some common history, with both franchises fighting through bankruptcy and accusations of being an unworthy market. Senators fans should have their back, if only so down the road they can claim that it should have been them.

Pick: Penguins

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, May 26, 2017

Podcast: Final countdown

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I relive one of the best game sevens in recent memory
- Seriously, we don't complain for like ten straight minutes
- Where do the Senators go from here?
- We look ahead to what could be a great Stanley Cup final matchup
- Just touch the conference final trophy
- Reader questions, featuring meat, bacon and media fist fights

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Stanley Cup final preview

Six weeks ago, the NHL playoffs started with 16 teams. Now, after last night's epic double-overtime win by the Penguins, we're down to two, and the Stanley Cup Final is here. Well, not quite here, because this is the NHL and we all have to wait around for a few days for anything to start, but it's close enough for a preview.

There's no denying that this year's final presents an intriguing matchup. In one corner, you've got the defending champs, bruised and exhausted but still fighting to become the first repeat winners in nearly two decades. In the other, a team that went into the postseason with the worst record among playoff teams and had never even been out of the second round in franchise history.

It's been an unpredictable ride through this year's playoffs. Well, unless you read our third-round preview, which nailed the winner and games played for each of the conference finals series. Consider this your spoiler warning: We'll get to the Cup Final prediction at the end, so skip the last section if you want to be surprised.

In this corner: The Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points, +49 goals differential excluding shootouts), who posted the second best regular-season record in the league.

The road so far: It's been a weird one, thanks to the NHL's unique playoff format. The Penguins faced a pair of top-five teams in the opening two rounds, knocking off the Blue Jackets easily and then dispatching the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals in seven. That earned them a date with the 12th-ranked Senators, who gave them everything they could handle. And now they close against the 16-seed.

The history books: The Penguins are chasing their fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history. In addition to becoming the first back-to-back champs since the 97/98 Red Wings, they'll be looking to tie the Blackhawks with their third title of the salary cap era.

Injury report: They've been banged up pretty badly all postseason, although they had several players return to the lineup during the Ottawa series. Patric Hornqvist missed Game 7 but was rumored to be close, so he could be back soon. Chad Ruhwedel sounds less likely. And of course, Kris Letang remains out for the playoffs after neck surgery.

One player to watch: Evgeni Malkin. The second half of the league's best one-two punch down the middle doesn't get quite as much attention as Sidney Crosby, but he's been almost as good for most of their careers. During this year's playoffs, he's been even better, leading the team in scoring and looking dangerous just about every time he's on the ice. Crosby still doesn't look completely right after suffering that concussion against the Capitals; he was great on the powerplay against Ottawa but less noticeable at 5-on-5. Malkin is rolling right now, and with Phil Kessel on his wing he'll give the Predators nightmares.

Key number: 95.0%—The Penguins' penalty-kill rate against Ottawa, which pretty much won them the series. The Senators were shut out completely at 5-on-4, with their only powerplay goal coming with a two-man advantage. That mismatch felt more like Ottawa being bad than Pittsburgh being good, but the Predators have been struggling on the powerplay all postseason long. If the Penguins can hold a major edge on special teams, Nashville is going to have a very tough time making up enough ground elsewhere to stay in this.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Grab Bag: An Ottawa Senators origin story

In a special Thursday edition of the Friday Grab Bag:
- The Stanley Cup playoffs have been completely unpredictable. But is that good?
- Just touch the damn conference trophy, guys
- A special World Championships edition of the three comedy stars
- An obscure player who lived out Phil Kessel's dream
- And a look back at where the Senators began: tanking games under a football stadium so they could build the franchise around a legendary bust

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Five reasons why tonight's game seven will definitely be won by the Senators (or Penguins)

The Ottawa Senators came through on Tuesday night, holding on for a 2–1 win to stave off elimination and send the Eastern Conference Final back to Pittsburgh. And so, for the third time in this year’s playoffs, fans will be treated to a winner-take-all seventh game.

Who’ll win? We have no idea. In today’s parity-stricken NHL, anyone who tells you that they know who’ll come out on top in a single game is full of it. We’re pretty close to coin-flip territory here, and anything could happen tonight.

But of course, that doesn’t really cut it when it comes to analysis. The rules of sports writing say we’re supposed to dress it all up in absolutes. So let’s break out a gimmick that worked well for last round’s Pittsburgh/Washington showdown, and come up with five reasons why the Penguins are definitely going to win this thing. And then, five more for the Senators.

The Penguins will win because: They’ve been here before

The Penguins most recent Game 7 win came two weeks ago. That was when they went into Washington, shrugged off two straight losses, and drove a stake through the heart of the Capitals franchise. They also beat the Lighting last year in this exact situation: Game 7 on home ice in the Conference Final. And some of these players were around in 2009, when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in a seventh-game classic with the Red Wings.

By comparison, the Senators most recent Game 7 win came... never. They've literally never had one in the history of the franchise. That seems like it should be impossible given how often Ottawa has been in the playoffs over the years, but here we are. And some of those losses have come in truly heart-breaking fashion.

Granted, most of that is ancient history for today's Senators roster; their last Game 7 came back in 2012. But the point remains: The Penguins roster is packed with guys who've been here before and know what it takes to win a do-or-die game. Most of the Senators have never played in a Game 7 at all, and a few of the ones who have won't want to remember how it turned out.

If you believe that big-game experience matters, this one is as easy a call as they come.

The Senators will win because: They're just about the perfect Game 7 road team

We always hear teams talk about how you play all season long to earn home ice in a Game 7. And sure, home teams have historically had an edge in a seventh-game situation. That's good news for the Penguins.

But not all road teams are created equal, and the Senators are just about the ideal team to go into an opponent's building and shut down the party. Much has been made about whether Guy Boucher's squad is boring, but that misses the point. In today's NHL, boring wins. And it's just about the perfect style for a big road game.

Maybe the Penguins come out flying and put this one away early. But it's not hard to picture a game where goals are tough to come by, and we're drifting into the second period or beyond still sitting at 0–0 while the crowd gets quiet and everyone starts muttering about how it feels like we're already in overtime. The Senators would be perfectly happy to play that sort of game. It's become Boucher's specialty.

For what it's worth, the Senators haven't won a playoff series on home ice since the opening round in 2007. In the decade since, all five of their series wins have come on the road, including both of this year's. They've been here before. They know what it takes to close out a team in their opponent's building. And if they need to, they're perfectly willing to be boring to do it.

The Penguins will win because: They've been the better team

It's the playoffs, so you could argue that wins are all that matter and by that measure these two teams have been equal.

But it's 2017, and we're smarter than that. We know that the scoreboard doesn't tell us everything, and by just about every other metric, the Penguins have been the best team in this series. They're outshooting the Senators by over five shots a game. They're dominating possession. Their special teams have been far better. And even if you want to be old-school and only point at the scoreboard, they're winning there, too, outscoring the Senators by a half-goal a game over the course of the series.

With the exception of the first period of Game 3, which featured several fluky goals, it's hard to point to any sustained stretch in this series in which the Senators have clearly been better. Meanwhile, in the last two games, Pittsburgh won a 7–0 blowout and followed that up with a dominant 46-shot performance on Tuesday.

Being the better team doesn't guarantee anything in today's NHL. But the Penguins are playing well enough to win, and they know it.

The Senators will win because: They have the best player

This sounds crazy. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, the consensus top player in the world. They have the best player in every series they play, and will right up until they face Connor McDavid and the Oilers in the Stanley Cup final a few years down the road.

But this isn't about the best player in the big picture. It's about right now. And in the 2017 playoffs, Erik Karlsson has been better than Crosby and everyone else. If he can be that player tonight, the Penguins aren't likely to have an answer for him.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The five most memorable Game Sevens in conference final history

Well, at least the Senators came through. While the Ducks couldn't stave off elimination in Monday's Game 6 loss to the Predators, the Senators managed to extend their series with the Penguins with Tuesday night's win. That means we'll at least get one Game 7 out of this year's conference finals.

So to celebrate, let's count down the five most memorable conference final Game 7s, dating back to the introduction of the four-round format back in 1975. Here's hoping the Pens and Sens can deliver something that will push for a spot on this list when they meet Thursday night.

No. 5: Devils vs. Senators, 2003

Here's a secret about the 2003 conference final showdown between the Devils and the Senators: It was for the Stanley Cup.

Nobody wanted to say that out loud at the time; it would have been bad form. But the Senators had posted the league's best regular season record, while the Devils had finished fourth overall. With all of the other contenders already eliminated, Ottawa and New Jersey were playing for the right to face the upstart Mighty Ducks in the final. And while Paul Kariya and friends were a great story, nobody gave them much of a chance against either the Senators or Devils.

So this series really did feel like it was for the championship. And the two teams put on a show worthy of those stakes, with the Devils taking a 3-1 series lead before the Senators roared back to force a seventh game thanks to a Chris Phillips overtime winner in Game 6. That set up a deciding game back in Ottawa, and it lived up to the hype. The teams traded goals, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Lalime traded big saves, and we were all tied at 2-2 late in the third.

And then, with overtime looming, it all fell apart for Ottawa thanks to a broken coverage on a harmless-looking rush.

Jeff Friesen's goal held up as the winner, and New Jersey moved on. Those Mighty Ducks turned out to be a tougher opponent than most of us expected, stretching the final to seven games. But the Devils prevailed, capturing their third Cup and leaving Senators fans to agonize over how close they'd come.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How this year's playoff performances are upending the offseason

The conference finals are always a bit of a weird time for hockey fans. On the one hand, three teams are still alive, fighting tooth and nail for the right to lift the Stanley Cup. There’s nothing more important in this sport than the do-or-die games we’re watching right now.

On the other hand, we’ve got 28 teams on the sidelines, and some of those teams have been there since early April. If we’re being honest, at least some fans are already thinking about the off-season. We’ve got a summer’s worth of trades, free-agency signings, and this year even an expansion draft waiting for us. It can be hard to keep focused on the playoffs without looking ahead.

So which is it, playoffs or off-season? Today, let’s do both. Let’s look at how this year’s playoffs may have changed what we should expect to see in the coming off-season. After all, an especially good or bad playoff run can influence or even completely upend the perception of a player (just ask Dave Bolland). Maybe it shouldn’t — a handful of games shouldn’t change how we view a guy who’s been around for years — but that doesn’t really matter. A few weeks in, the spring can rewrite everything that’s going to happen in the summer.

This year will be no different. Now we just need to figure out who’s changed what. We’ll look at a few key aspects of the off-season, starting with what some GM’s have called the biggest day of the year for off-season mistakes: July 1.

Free agency

There's nothing like a disappointing playoff run to send a player into unrestricted free agency with a dark cloud hanging over them. Fair or not, a player can cost themselves some serious money with a poorly timed post-season slump.

That may have been what we just saw happen to Kevin Shattenkirk. Widely considered to be the top player on this year's market, Shattenkirk doubled as the biggest name to move at the trade deadline. He seemed like an ideal fit for a Capitals team that was already the Stanley Cup favourite. But a disappointing playoffs saw Shattenkirk paired with Brooks Orpik, and the two veterans struggled to keep the puck out of their net.

After eight games, Shattenkirk was sitting at a minus-7 rating, a performance that his own coach publicly called "not good enough". He rebounded somewhat after that, including scoring the OT winner in game three against Pittsburgh. But heading towards July 1, teams will be asking themselves if Shattenkirk deserves to be paid like a top-pairing defenceman, and his playoff performance didn't give him much evidence to point to.

The Capitals' other pending UFAs were more of a mixed bag. T.J. Oshie had a productive post-season and probably boosted his value at least a little bit while Karl Azner struggled. Meanwhile, Justin Williams played well but lost his Mr. Game Seven aura against the Penguins.

The deadline's other top name didn't fare much better that Shattenkirk. Minnesota's Martin Hanzal heads into free agency after managing just a single point during the Wild's abbreviated run. He's a two-way player who wasn't brought in to light up the scoreboard, but when your own owner is publicly wishing his team hadn't traded for you, you may have cost yourself a few dollars.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, May 19, 2017

Grab bag: Kesler vs. Johansen, boring Sens, Kessel vs. Phaneuf

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Are the Senators boring?
- Ryan Johansen calls out Ryan Kesler, kind of
- An obscure player who was the first link between the Ducks and Predators
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we look back at Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel sharing some friendly banter about how much they hate each other

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Podcast: Sens and sensitivity

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I talk about the (maybe) boring Senators and their (definitely) over-sensitive fanbase
- We debate Murray vs. Fleury, and one of us is right
- Thoughts on Ryan Johansen calling out Ryan Kesler
- That terrible new playoff ad that everyone seems to love
- The NHL unveils its list of the 20 greatest teams and it's wrong
- And lots more

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The 2017 playoff all-disappointment team

We’re well into the conference finals, which is great for fans of the four teams left standing. The Senators, Penguins, Predators and Ducks are filled with positive — and at times even inspiring — stories of perseverance and success.

It’s annoying. All of this saying-nice-things is getting exhausting.

So today, let’s get back to what hockey fans do best: Complaining about guys who didn’t meet our expectations. Yes, it’s time to name our annual playoff-bust team, in which we find a roster’s worth of players who’ve had a disappointing last few weeks.

We’ll fill out a complete lineup card, including a third-string goalie. For an extra challenge, we’ll do it all-star style, meaning we want at least one player from every team (including the four active ones). And like all great teams, we’ll build from the net out…


Sergei Bobrovsky: We'll ease into things with one of the most straightforward picks on the roster. Bobrovsky will probably win his second Vezina this year, and deservedly so. But he never got going during the playoffs, giving up three or more goals in all five games and finishing as one of only two post-season starters with a sub-.900 save percentage.

Would a better performance have powered the Blue Jackets past the Penguins for their first-ever playoff series win? Maybe not, but without their star goalie in top form, Columbus never had a chance.

Brian Elliott: Elliott is the other starter to fall under the .900 mark, and he was actually a few points back of Bobrovsky. He made four starts, the Flames lost all four, and his 3.88 GAA tied with Bobrovsky for the post-season's worst. But unlike Bobrovsky, he almost certainly won't get a chance to redeem himself next year, at least not with the Flames.

Braden Holtby: Emergency backup duties on our all-disappointment roster is a little trickier call; you could make a case for Corey Crawford, or maybe even John Gibson. But we'll go with Holtby, who falls victim to sky-high expectations that he and his Capitals teammates carried into the playoffs. His shaky numbers were as much about bad bounces as any obvious flaw in his game, but given the stakes in Washington, Holtby's performance was a letdown. Spoiler alert: He won't be the only Capital on this team.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Five teams that hit rock bottom before winning a Cup (and what they can teach the Capitals)

A week can be a very long time in the NHL.

One week ago today, the Capitals were getting ready for the biggest game in recent franchise history. And it sure looked like they were about to record the biggest win in recent franchise history, as they went into Game 7 against the Penguins with all the momentum. With a win, they'd complete the comeback from down 3-1 in the series and advance to the conference final for the first time in the Alexander Ovechkin era.

We know how that turned out. Now, the Capitals look like a franchise in ruin. They've got several paths forwards, and none of them look good. For a team that everyone seemed to have penciled in as favorites, it's hard to imagine the mood around the team being much worse.

So what happens when a Cup contender has it all go bad?

If there's any good news to be found for the Capitals, it's that there's actually a decent history of NHL teams having miserable postseason exits, only to bounce back and win the Stanley Cup a year or two later. So today, let's try to cheer up Washington fans with a look back at five Cup contenders who hit rock bottom or something close to it before winning it all, and what those teams could teach the Capitals.

2010 Boston Bruins

What went wrong: Like the current Capitals, the 2009-10 Bruins hadn't been out of the second round in a long time. It had been 18 years since their last trip to the final four, including a disappointing 2008-09 season in which they came within a point of first overall, then were stunned by the sixth-seeded Hurricanes in Round 2.

But in 2010, things were different. The Bruins beat out the Sabres in the opening round, then took a 3-0 series lead over the Flyers in the second round. But after missing a shot at a sweep by dropping Game 4 in overtime, the Bruins lost Games 5 and 6 as well, forcing a seventh game on home ice. Then they blew a 3-0 lead in that game, completing one of the most stunning collapses in NHL history, becoming (at the time) only the third team to ever lose a series it had led 3-0.

But then: The Bruins traded for Nathan Horton and Greg Campbell in the offseason, and drafted Tyler Seguin with Toronto's pick. But other than that, they kept the roster largely intact (getting Tim Thomas back to gull health helped). It paid off when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011. Nobody mentions the blown 3-0 lead anymore.

What the Caps can learn: If you're looking for a case of a team resisting the urge to overreact and being rewarded, the Bruins are a decent choice. Nobody got fired, and none of the top stars were shown the door. And for once, the "stay the course" approach worked.

1979 Islanders

What went wrong: The 1978-79 seasons marked the fourth straight year in which the Islanders finished with one the five best records in the league. This time, they were the best, period, winning the Presidents' Trophy with a franchise record 116 points. But in all that time, they'd never been able to get over the hump and into the final.

The 1979 playoffs were supposed to be different. The Islanders swept the Hawks in Round 1, setting up a meeting with a Rangers team that had finished 25 points back of them in the standings. But the Rangers largely shut down the Islanders' high-octane offense, winning the series in six and leaving fans on Long Island to wonder if their team would ever figure it out in the playoffs.

But then: It's safe to say they figured it out; after that Rangers loss, the Islanders won their next 19 playoff series, a pro sports record that still stands today. That included four straight Stanley Cups and full-fledged dynasty status.

That was despite taking a step back during the 1980-81 regular season, falling to a pedestrian 91 points. But a late-season move to bring in Butch Goring seemed to spark the team, and is often cited as one of the best trade deadline deals ever.

What the Caps can learn: The lesson here is to stay calm if the team seems to regress next season, although it's hard to imagine that message actually sinking in for a Washington fan base on edge. Still, the Islanders are another decent "stay the course" story, with a little bit of "load up at the deadline" mixed in.

Of course, there's also one other Islanders move that's been largely forgotten: They switched captains in 1979, moving the "C" from Clark Gillies to Denis Potvin. Sorry, Alex.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ranking the candidates to be Canada's Team

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised some eyebrows recently when he suggested that the entire country should be rooting for the Ottawa Senators. They’re Canada’s last remaining playoff team, after all, and with the nation riding a Stanley Cup drought going on 24 years, surely we could all unite in a common cause of rooting them on.

Not so fast, responded hockey fans around the country. Once we were done being thankful that this is what passes for a controversial statement from our leader, the backlash to Trudeau’s comments was swift.

The whole “Canada’s team” thing always comes up around this time of year, and it always divides fans. Many are on Trudeau’s side, happily throwing their support behind whichever of the country’s teams is the last one left. But others want no part of switching allegiances, even temporarily. For those fans, the idea of getting behind some other team is a non-starter, and anyone who’d suggest otherwise doesn’t get what being a fan is all about.

We’ll save that particular debate for another day. Instead, let’s take a look back at the teams that have laid claim to “Canada’s Team” status over the years. Since the start of the country’s Cup drought in 1993, there have been 11 Canadian teams that have made it to at least the conference finals as the nation’s last remaining team.

Today, we’ll rank them from least to most likable and see where this year’s Senators would slot in if (and we emphasize the “if”) you were the sort of fan who’d jump on the bandwagon of the country’s last remaining team.

#11. 2011 Canucks

The good: There's a strong case to be made that this was the country's very best team of the Cup drought era. They finished the season with 117 points, the most by a Canadian team in 22 years, and earned the first of back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies. They barely survived their first-round series against the Blackhawks, nearly blowing a 3-0 series lead before winning Game 7 in overtime, and seemed to get stronger as the playoffs wore on. By the time a Stanley Cup final matchup with the Bruins arrived, it really did seem like this was going to be the Canucks' year.

The bad: There's really no nice way to put it: This was a thoroughly unlikable team. Not top-to-bottom – they had easy-to-root-for players like the Sedin twins and Roberto Luongo. But they also had guys like Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Maxim Lapierre, all of whom fell solidly into the "like them when they're on your team, hate them when they're on anyone else's" category at the time. (And according to Ryan Johansen, still do today.)

To make matters worse, the team quickly gained a reputation for diving, whining and dishing out cheap shots. It's true that every team does their share of that stuff, but it's a reputation that stuck to the 2011 Canucks, and fans of other teams had plenty of fun with it.

By the time they started biting opponents, their role as post-season villains had been sealed. Nobody was jumping on this bandwagon.

Bottom line: Over the years, it's become easier to overlook some of the unfortunate moments and appreciate this team in a way we may not have been able to at the time. But back in 2011, these guys were a hard no.

#10. 2002 Maple Leafs

The good: They were a solid team that was fun to watch, playing the attacking style favored by coach Pat Quinn. And they had to overcome plenty of adversity just to reach the conference finals, with captain Mats Sundin missing the majority of the playoffs due to injury.

The bad: Let's start with the obvious: It's the Maple Leafs. Most fans in this country wouldn't jump on the Leafs' bandwagon if the entire roster sprouted halos and angel wings.

And this particular team were certainly no angels. While the roster featured guys like Sundin and future Lady Byng winner Alexander Mogilny, it also had Tie Domi throwing elbows and Darcy Tucker taking out knees. Within months, no less an authority than Sports Illustrated would be calling this team "the NHL's most notorious band of whiners, divers and cheap-shot artists". That might have been a little harsh, but given that the 2002 Leafs had a player suspended for a Game 7 because he tried to kick an opponent in the head, only a little.

Bottom line: The fact that they didn't make it all the way to the final is probably the only thing keeping this team from challenging the 2011 Canucks for the least likable crown.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, May 15, 2017

Weekend wrap: Senators' OT magic (but the backlash is on the way)

In the NHL playoffs, as the old saying goes, you’re never truly in trouble until you lose one at home.

There’s a corollary to that: If you lose two straight at home, you’re probably screwed.

The Ducks were facing that fate last night, after dropping Game 1 against the Predators on Friday night. It looked like Nashville might head home with a 2–0 series lead; the Predators held a two-goal lead after just 10 minutes, and led 3–2 midway through the second. But the Ducks stormed back, helped along by an uncharacteristically shaky outing from Pekka Rinne.

The two teams will now head to Nashville tied at a game apiece, with the series resuming tomorrow night.

The Penguins will be looking to follow the Ducks' lead tonight, as they host the Senators in what feels close to a must-win game. The high-powered Pens couldn't get much going in Saturday's Game 1, trailing 1–0 for most of the night before Evgeni Malkin tied it up late to briefly wake up a largely comatose Pittsburgh crowd. That gave the Penguins an opportunity to steal a win in overtime, but instead it was Bobby Ryan who capped it off for the Senators.

Game 2 goes tonight, and a Senators win would send them back to Ottawa with a shot at a sweep. The Senators head into this one having won five of seven on the road in this year's post-season.

On to the weekend's power rankings...

Top Five

Celebrating the players, teams, storylines and themes that have had the best week.

5. The Ryan Kesler vs. Ryan Johansen rivalry: The NHL playoffs are always better with a little bad blood mixed in, and the Nashville/Anaheim series is providing plenty early on. Much of it has come courtesy Kesler and Johansen, who've spent most of the first two games matched up against each other.

Things boiled over last night, with Johansen ripping on Kesler after the game. The mini-rant came after he appeared to be on the receiving end of a Kesler elbow, among other battles, and at one point included Johansen telling reporters that "I don't know how you can cheer for a player like that."

You can understand Johansen's frustration, but you have to think those sorts of comments are music to Kesler's ears. For the record, he was relatively complimentary of Johansen immediately after the game. But Kesler has been down this playoff road a few times before, and he knows how to get under someone's skin. He's apparently already there with Johansen, and there are still up to five games left to go.

4. Ben Bishop: The Dallas Stars got a jump on the off-season by locking down the first big-name UFA of the summer, signing Bishop to a six-year deal worth $29.5 million after acquiring his rights from the Kings.

The deal represents a pay cut for Bishop, who'll average about a million dollars less per season than he did on his last contract. But the term will more than make up for that; Bishop is 30 years old and coming off an injury-plagued season, and the market hasn't been especially kind to goalies in recent years. The track record for bigger goalies aging well isn't great, so getting a six-year commitment from a team is a clear win for Bishop.

From the Stars' perspective, Bishop is a clear upgrade at a position that's been a problem for years. He didn't come cheap (and they also had to give up a fourth-round pick to acquire his rights), but at some point GM Jim Nill needed to address his goaltending issues. There's an excellent chance that the contract comes back to bite the Stars by the end, but right now Nill has a potential Cup contender in place, and going another season with the status quo wasn't an option. Let's tentatively call this one even from a Dallas perspective, at least until we see how they wriggle out from Kari Lehtonen and/or Antti Niemi's contracts.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, May 12, 2017

Podcast: Break up the Capitals

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I react to a pair of game sevens
- We argue over whether the Caps should just blow it all up
- One surprising name it might make sense for Washington to trade
- Conference finals predictions
- The whole Sidney Crosby concussion fiasco
- The Stars finally get their goalie
- The Chris Neil narrative is so dumb
- Reader questions, and lots more

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Conference final preview + predictions

Welcome to the third round of the NHL playoffs. Let's get you caught up on what's happened so far.

The worst team in the Central, according the standings, made it through. The worst team in the Atlantic, according to the experts, did, too. The Presidents' Trophy winner went home in the second round, and their fans are very sad. And in the Pacific, a top seed that never wins Game 7 captured the division by winning a Game 7.

In other words, nobody has any idea what's going on, or what's going to happen. It's chaos out there. Beautiful, beautiful chaos. Let's get to the conference final preview.

Western Conference

One team is back in the conference final for the second time in three years. The other has never been here before, ever. It's not exactly a matchup between long-established hockey markets, but it should be fun.

WC Nashville Predators vs. #1 Anaheim Ducks

In this corner: The Predators (41-29-12, 94 points, +18 goals differential not counting shootouts), who struggled through an underwhelming first half of the season before hitting their stride in time for the playoffs.

The road so far: They stunned the favored Blackhawks with a four-game sweep in the opening round, then disposed of the Blues in six to reach the conference final for the first time in franchise history.

Injury report: With the obvious yet important caveat that just about everyone is banged up at this time of year and NHL teams are under no real obligation to tell us anything, the Predators injury list is fairly empty, apart from Kevin Fiala, who is out for the year after suffering an ugly broken leg in the second round.

The big question: How do you slow down the Predators offense from the blueline? The team's big three of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis have combined for 24 points, with each of those players ranking among the team's top five scorers. For comparison, the team's other three blueliners have just three points total.

It's rare for a team to get that much scoring from the backend, and it's made up for the fact that the Predators forwards have been only OK. It will be interesting to see if the Ducks make any sort of adjustment to try to take away those blueline chances and force the guys up front to beat them.

One player to watch: Ryan Johansen. The fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft has long been viewed as an underrated two-way center—think along the lines of a poor man's Jonathan Toews or Anze Kopitar.

The Predators paid big to get him, surrendering Seth Jones in a blockbuster trade with the Blue Jackets last year, and for the most part he's given them what they were looking for. His 61 points tied him for the team lead, and he led the forwards in ice time. Still, he's the sort of player who always seems to leave you wanting just a little more. He has a team-leading nine points in this year's postseason, but with a matchup with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry looming, he'll be under the brightest spotlight of his career over the next two weeks.

Key number: .951, Pekka Rinne's save percentage so far in the postseason. You can dig into all sorts of numbers and narratives, but when your goaltender is stopping 19 out of every 20 shots, you're going to win.

Rinne isn't as good as his numbers indicate; he was a more pedestrian .918 on the regular season, and has been under .910 in each of his last two playoff runs before this current one. But that doesn't matter. He's red hot right now, and if he stays that way, the Predators probably win the series.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Grab bag: Stop wearing bright orange to playoff games you cretins, and other issues

In a special Thursday edition of the Grab Bag:
- Fans keep wearing bright orange to playoff games and we need to put a stop to it.
- Sidney Crosby just showed us why the concussion spotter system is broken
- An obscure player from an obscure trade that ended up being kind of important
- The week's three comedy stars, including an NHL team personally making fun of me
- And a look back at how the Predators started: With a terrible country song called "Hockey Tonk"

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

What do the Washington Capitals do now?

Heading into last night, it felt like something might have finally changed for the Washington Capitals. After three decades of increasingly devastating playoff debacles, this time felt like it might be different. After falling behind 3–1 in their series with the Penguins, they’d fought back to force a seventh game. You could feel the narrative rewriting itself — the notorious choke artists were finally going to flip the script on their arch-rival, the sort of dramatic turnaround that sends a franchise on the way to its first championship.

And then it all happened again.

Last night’s 2–0 loss didn’t just end the Capitals’ season. It was the worst-case scenario — one that saw yet another promising Washington season end with a whimper. It wasn’t their best game. It wasn’t even close. And they know it.

And now they’re left wondering what’s next. How do you fix this? Can you fix this?

This the part where I’m supposed to lay out what the Capitals’ ideal off-season plan should be. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure there is one. There are several different routes the Caps could go here, and each one has some serious flaws.

Option #1: Blow it all up

The approach: Sometimes when you're holding a losing hand, the smart thing to do is to keep playing until your luck turns around. And sometimes, the right move is to fold your cards, walk away from the table and cut your losses.

The Alex Ovechkin-era Capitals have been trying to win a Cup for a dozen years now, and the core of this year's edition has been together for the last five. That's a long time in the salary-cap world. The list of NHL teams that have been contenders that long without ever getting close, only to finally break through years down the line, is an awfully short one. It might even be empty.

Something's rotten in the foundation. Bulldoze the whole thing and rebuild.

The problem: Let's start with the obvious: This is a really good team. They've put up 238 points over the last two seasons, which is ridiculous in the NHL's age of parity.

So why haven't they won a championship? Well, as unsatisfying as the answer might be, maybe they're just unlucky. The league's playoff format means they have to get past a tough Penguins team to escape the second round, and they've come within a bounce or two of doing it. An 82-game season should tell us a lot more than a seven-game series, and in the Capitals' case, it's telling us that this is an excellent team. Blowing them up because they lost a Game 7 seems foolish.

But let's say you don't buy any of that, and you really think this team needs to start over. How do you do it? The team's four highest-paid players in terms of cap hit are all signed through at least 2020, and as you may have heard, trading big contracts isn't easy these days. You can let UFAs like Karl Azner or T.J. Oshie walk, but breaking up the core might be just about impossible. And if you do manage to trade some of your bigger names, you won't be getting anywhere near fair value.

Option #2: Trade Alex Ovechkin

The approach: OK, so making a bunch of trades will be tough. So instead, make one. There's no bigger move the Capitals could make, and no cleaner break from the identity they've built, than pulling the trigger on an Ovechkin deal.

It's been called "unthinkable", and yet you can bet a lot of Capitals fans are thinking it right now. Ovechkin is a great player who'll be an easy Hall of Fame pick some day. Heck, he might go down in history as the greatest goal-scorer of all-time.

But between the playoffs and the Olympics, he's come up small when his team needed him most time and again. At some point, that becomes a pattern. And with four years left on his deal, there's only one realistic way for Washington to break out of it.

The problem: Like with the point above, we could wonder whether this sort of move wouldn't be a massive overreaction to a small-sample-size problem. In a league where goals are hard to come by, parting with a guy who produces more of them than any other player seems like a strange choice.

But again, let's ignore that and assume the Caps do decide that they want to move on from their franchise player. Who are you trading him to? Ovechkin will be 32 by opening night and carries the fourth-highest cap hit in the league. Not many teams could trade for him even if they wanted to.

Granted, we could have said similar things this time last year about someone like Shea Weber, and we know how that worked out. We've seen some big one-for-one deals in recent years, so maybe some other team that wants a big shakeup would be willing to roll the dice. But it seems extremely unlikely, and again, that's ignoring the fact that it doesn't necessarily seem like a great idea.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The five nights in NHL history with three (or more) Game Sevens

Hockey fans are going to get a rare treat Wednesday night, as the NHL serves up a pair of Game 7s. It will be the first time in a little over three years that we've had more than one in a night, and having a pair of Game 7s on the same date is relatively uncommon; it's happened just ten times in the last two decades.

But if you want to get into the really rare stuff, you have to look for the nights where there were three or more. That's only happened five times in NHL history, probably because hockey fans' hearts couldn't take much more than that.

So today, as we get ready for a Game 7 doubleheader, let's look back at those five times that we've had three. We'll start with the most recent, which came three years ago.

April 30, 2014

Before Wednesday night, this was the most recent case of even two Game 7s falling in the same night, as the opening round of the 2014 playoffs closed out with a trio of do-or-die games.

At Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and Flyers played a tight game to cap off a back-and-forth series. Despite some decent star power on hand, the goals came from some unlikely sources, with Daniel Carcillo and Benoit Pouliot scoring for the Rangers while Jason Akeson replied for the Flyers. Henrik Lundqvist outdueled Steve Mason in a 2-1 Rangers win.

We got another close one in Colorado, where the Avalanche faced the underdog Wild. A late goal by Minnesota's Jared Spurgeon pushed the game into overtime, where Nino Niederreiter finished off the upset.

The night's third Game 7 wasn't as close, but it made some history. The Kings went into San Jose and stomped the Sharks by a 5-1 final, finishing off just the fourth comeback from a 3-0 series deficit in NHL history. After dropping the first three games, the Kings won the next four by a combined score of 18-5, and went on to capture the franchise's second Stanley Cup.

April 22, 2003

We have to go back over a decade to find our next triple-header, and it starts off feeling a bit familiar: With the Wild knocking off the favored Avalanche in overtime. This time it's Andrew Brunette pulling off the move of a lifetime to send the Avs home – and end the career of Patrick Roy.

The night's other two Game 7s didn't pack quite as much drama. In Philadelphia, the Flyers pounded the Leafs 6-1, sending Toronto home in the first round for the only time during the Pat Quinn era. And in St. Louis, the Canucks finished off a rally from down 3-1 in the series to knock off the Blues by a 4-1 final; the Blues went on to win just one playoff game over the next seven seasons.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News

Will the Capitals or Penguins win game seven? Yes.

The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will face each other tonight in a Game 7 showdown that seemed exceedingly unlikely just a few days ago. Through four games, it looked like Pittsburgh had all but wrapped up a trip to the conference final. But after seeing Washington play it’s two best games of the series in a pair of must-wins, who knows what’s going to happen tonight?

I do. I know what’s going to happen.

It’s not actually all that hard to figure out. Tonight’s winner is pretty obvious if you know the five key factors to look for. So today, let’s list those five factors, and why they add up to a sure thing.

(Note to editors: I actually have no earthly idea who’s going to win tonight. So I came up with five good reasons for each team; I’m thinking you can just “accidentally” hold off publishing this until after the game, then delete all the ones that turn out to be wrong. It’s all pretty foolproof, just as long as nobody screws up and posts the whole thing during the day.)

Here are the five reasons why tonight's winner is an easy call. Spoiler alert: Don't read any further if you want to be surprised!

The Penguins will win because: They know how to close.

You're going to hear a lot about Justin Williams in the lead-up to Wednesday night. He's Mr. Game 7, after all, with a track record of coming through in the clutch.

That's nice that the Capitals have one guy who fits that description. The problem is that the Penguins have a roster full of them.

These are the defending Stanley Cup champs we're talking about. Several key guys have two rings. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and others have won a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final. The franchise is 5-0 in Game 7s on the road, including a win in Washington. They're not going to wilt here.

The Capitals, on the other hand... well, we'll get to that in a bit. But it's fair to say that when it comes to knowing how to win, this one is no contest. One team has been talking about getting over the hump for the better part of a decade. The other actually goes out and does it. When in doubt, go with the team that's been there before.

The Capitals will win because: They're dominating right now.

History lessons about past Pittsburgh glory are nice and all, but we're worried about right now. And right now, the Capitals are kicking the Penguins' butts all over the rink.

That was largely true even early in the series, when the Pens were getting wins and everyone was ready to write the Capitals off. Washington wasn't playing perfect hockey by any stretch, but they were playing well enough to deserve a better fate. The Caps have outshot the Penguins by a lopsided 200–133 count so far in the series. They've also dominated possession, and had more scoring chances.

Early in the series, they ran into a hot goalie and some tough bounces, and probably deserved a better fate. But that sort of thing can start to even out over a long series, and that's what we've seen over the last two games.

Right now, there's really no question over who's the better team. It's been Washington all along, and the gap is only getting wider as the series goes on.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Oilers are playing a game seven and something horrible is about to happen

The Oilers stomped the Ducks on Sunday night, staving off elimination and forcing a seventh game Wednesday night in Anaheim. In a series that’s had a little bit of everything, Edmonton’s 7–1 blowout was just the latest unpredictable twist, and at this point it’s fair to say that anything is possible in Game 7.

But we do know one thing: Something horrible is going to happen.

The Ducks’ recent history of losing Game 7s has been well documented; they’ve dropped five in a row, including seeing each of their last four seasons end in a Game 7 loss on home ice. Last year’s loss cost Bruce Boudreau his job and had Bob Murray ripping his players.

So today, as we wait for Wednesday night's showdown, let's relive the Oilers' history of Game 7 misery (with one Game 5 thrown in for good measure). We'll count down all 10 of the winner-take-all games in the team's history, from least to most tragic.

No. 10: 1984 – Oilers 7, Flames 4

The setup: The Oilers had run away with the Presidents' Trophy, finishing 37 points up on Calgary. They'd also threatened to run away with the series, taking a 3–1 lead, before a pair of one-goal Flames wins forced a deciding game.

The game: The Flames held tough early on, coming back from an early 2–0 deficit to take a 4–3 lead midway through the second. But the Oilers poured it on from there, scoring the game's final four goals to earn a 7–4 win.

Defining memory: Reggie Lemelin made a highlight-reel save on a Pat Hughes breakaway but lost his stick in the process, and Kenny Linesman stuffed home the winner while the Flames' goalie was scrambling to retrieve it. The goal also touched off a line brawl, because this was the Battle of Alberta and that's just how they rolled.

Misery ranking: 2/10. Consider this relatively painless game as the exception that proves the rule; the late collapse was tough on the Flames, but we'd all expected an Oilers win and the Flames had done well just to push them to the limit. Calgary would get a rematch two years later. Spoiler alert: That one would be worse.

No. 9: 1998 – Oilers 4, Avalanche 0

The setup: After dropping Games 3 and 4 at home to fall behind in the series 3–1, the underdog Oilers fought back to force a seventh game against an Avalanche team looking to win their second Stanley Cup in three years.

The game: What seemed like a potential goaltender's duel between Patrick Roy and Curtis Joseph ended up being a one-sided affair, with the Oilers building a 3–0 lead by midway through the third period. They'd end up taking the game by a 4–0 final in front of a dead-quiet Colorado crowd.

Defining memory: Joseph gets wiped out in the corner by a teammate, then scrambles back to his crease to make a diving save on Rene Corbet, snuffing out any hope of a Colorado comeback.

Misery ranking: 5/10. This would be the Avalanche's only first-round loss (and only time they didn't make it at least as far as the Conference Final) in their first seven years in Colorado. More importantly for the rest of us, it ended any chance of seeing another Red Wings/Avalanche cage match.

No. 8: 1989 – Kings 6, Oilers 3

The setup: A win in the dying second of game four had put the Oilers up 3–1 in the series, but the Kings fought back to force a seventh game. (As a side note, a lot of Oilers seven-game series seem to involve teams coming back from down 3–1. This means something. I don't know what.)

Of course, this was more than just a playoff series — it was the first post-season meeting between the two teams since the previous summer's blockbuster that had sent Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles.

The game: Gretzky opened the scoring less than a minute in, but the two teams were tied late in the second. That's when Bernie Nicholls scored the eventual winner, as the Kings went on to a 6–3 win.

Defining memory: Gretzky's empty netter sealed the deal, ending the Oilers' two-year reign as champions.

Misery ranking: 6/10. Whether losing to their former franchise player made this more or less painful for Edmonton fans is a matter of perspective. At the time, it felt like the Oilers' time as an elite NHL franchise had ended with the trade, although they'd come back and win another Cup the following season.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, May 8, 2017

Weekend wrap: Oilers make it seven

Well, that was an interesting weekend for the Edmonton Oilers.

On Friday, they suffered one of the most devastating playoff losses in recent memory, blowing a 3–0 lead with just over three minutes left in regulation before losing in overtime. That collapse had them facing elimination last night, in front of 18,000 Edmonton fans praying that the team could make it to seven.

That was seven as in a seventh and deciding game. Instead, they got seven goals, with the Oilers going full 1980s mode on a hapless Ducks team that just couldn't keep up. The Oilers had put three pucks past John Gibson before the game was nine minutes old, and the onslaught had only begun. By the time it was over, the Oilers had taken the game by a 7–1 final, racking up their biggest playoff blowout in 27 years.

The lopsided score doesn't necessarily mean anything heading into Wednesday night's Game 7. Oilers fans know that well, after watching their team get waxed 7-0 by the Sharks in the opening round before winning two straight to close out that series. Momentum from a big win typically lasts right up until the opening faceoff of the next game.

But there's more than one bad loss at play here. The Ducks have a history of crushing Game 7 losses. And this isn't a Washington Capitals type of history, stretching back decades to a time before some of the players were even born. Anaheim has seen its season end with a Game 7 loss on home ice in each of the last four years, and several key players were there for each and every one of them.

Last time around, it cost Bruce Boudreau his job and had Bob Murray demanding more from his core. Now they're facing the possibility of it all happening again.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe the Ducks put together the sort of 60-minute game we haven't seen much of from them during this series, close out the young Oilers and move on, ending all the Game 7 talk in the process. But it's not hard to picture them gripping their sticks a little tighter if things go south early. And that's especially true if Gibson looks anywhere near as shaky as he did last night.

Either way, four weeks into the post-season, we're finally getting our first Game 7. And the dream of two Canadian teams in the conference final for the first time in 23 years is still alive, with the underdog Senators now just one game away from sending the Rangers home.

On to the weekend's rankings...

Top Five

Celebrating the players, teams, storylines and themes that have had the best week.

5. Vegas Golden Knights: The Knights have yet to make a trade, or at least any that we know about. But with six weeks to go until the expansion draft, George McPhee and company have been keeping busy. They signed their second player over the weekend, landing highly covered KHL star Vadim Shipachyov. And according to one report, he could be joined by Shipachyov's former teammate Evgeni Dadonov soon.

Targeting the KHL isn't a bad strategy for a Golden Knights team that won't get much help from the expansion draft. They're going to have plenty of holes in the lineup, especially if McPhee can start locking down some deals that see him acquiring picks and prospects in exchange for passing on certain teams' veterans. And because the roster won't be very good, they should have plenty of cap space to work with. Signing establish NHL free agents could be a tough sell, so raiding the KHL makes sense. And it's nice to see the Knights finally start to feel like a real team.

4. Conspiracy theories: It's been a good week for the tinfoil-hat brigade.

After shaking off the disappointment of a draft lottery that didn't really offer up much in the way of conspiracy fodder, fans who see hidden plots lurking behind everything that happens in the league took centre stage after the Alex Ovechkin/Matt Niskanen/Sidney Crosby incident.

Most of us saw a play that was somewhere between an unfortunate accident and an outright dirty hit. Not so, argued others — it was all part of a secret plan, hatched by the Capitals at a players-only meeting held after Game 2, and then ruthlessly executed in the early moments of Game 3.

Meanwhile, as the Capitals were planning the demise of their opponents, the NHL and its officials were apparently doing the same for the Oilers. Thanks to a pair of questionable goaltender-interference calls — and we'll get to those in more detail a bit later — we now know that the fix is in.

Why? Well, because obviously the league doesn't want Edmonton in the conference final. You see, the Oilers don't have much to offer the league beyond its very best and most marketable young player, and Anaheim is a really big TV market that... wait. OK, the logic here may need more work.

But logic is never the point for these sorts of things. They're dumb and pointless, and deep down we all know it. But sometimes it's good to vent, and if a shadowy backroom plot helps that along, so be it. It's the playoffs; we can all reactivate our brains once the offseason arrives.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, May 5, 2017

Grab bag: Playoff outrage, lottery complaints, and Sudden Death

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- There's so much playoff outrage boiling over that we need a lightning round to cover it all
- Stop complaining about the draft lottery
- The most obscure four-goal playoff scorer who isn't Jean-Gabriel Pageau
- The week's three comedy stars
- And if you think Marc-Andre Fleury looks like an action hero in the Penguins' net these days, wait until you see the guy in this week's YouTube breakdown...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Making the case for each lottery team to trade their first round pick

Once the ping pong balls had stopped bouncing and Saturday’s draft-lottery announcement was complete, we knew two things: 1) That the hockey gods hate the Colorado Avalanche, and 2) The order for this year’s top 15 picks. The bottom half of the draft is still sorting itself out in the playoffs, but the top half is locked in.

Well, at least for now.

While the order is set in stone, the picks themselves could still change hands via trade. This year’s first round has been unusually stable as far as deals go. Only two picks have changed hands, with the Blues getting Washington’s pick in the Kevin Shattenkirk deal and the Coyotes getting Minnesota’s for Martin Hanzal. (A third pick is still up in the air, as the Stars could still get Anaheim’s first from the Patrick Eaves trade.)

That said, "easy" isn’t necessarily fun, and we like to have some fun around here. In what's expected to be a weaker draft, maybe this is the year that we can talk some GMs into shopping their picks. So today, let's see if we can make a case for each of the lottery teams to trade its first-round pick. This will get tougher as we get closer to the first-overall pick, so we'll start out easy and work our way up to it.

Pick No. 15: New York Islanders

The case for a trade: The Islanders just endured a disappointing season, following up their first playoff series win in 23 years by missing the playoffs and firing their coach. But they only missed the wild card by one point, so it's not like they're a candidate for a full-on reset.

Maybe more importantly, this is a team that has some serious incentive to win now. They're looking for a new arena deal, and those can be easier to come by when you've got some positive momentum to build on. There's also the John Tavares situation; the Islanders' franchise player is eligible to sign an extension on July 1, and he may not be interested in spending what's left of his prime treading water for a middle-of-the-pack team.

Add it all up, and mix in some new ownership that's going to want to see some progress, and waiting around two or three years for another prospect to be ready is going to be a hard sell for Garth Snow.

Does it hold up?: It's a pretty solid case. It's not like Snow is going to be able to land a superstar for a mid-round pick in a weak draft, but using the 15th choice as an asset in a deal would make a lot of sense.

Pick No. 14: Tampa Bay Lightning

The case for a trade: We all figured they were Stanley Cup contenders, and maybe they still are. But after a season where just about everything went wrong, their window seems a lot smaller than most of us thought. Trading their top pick for immediate help would make a lot of sense, especially since anyone they draft from this spot isn't likely to be a difference-maker any time soon.

Does it hold up?: On the surface, sure. But the problem in Tampa is the salary cap, where Steve Yzerman barely has enough room to handle all the guys on his current roster. Adding another veteran would be tricky, so while the Lightning's focus should be on right now, Yzerman may not have any choice but to bank this pick for down the line.

Pick No. 13: Winnipeg Jets

The case for a trade: This year's Jets season played out just like all the others since the team's return — lots of young talent and plenty of potential, but, ultimately, zero playoff wins. Kevin Cheveldayoff has been preaching patience for years now, but at some point you need to start winning.

Fans in Winnipeg are among the most loyal in the league, but they've been looking one or two years down the road for six seasons now. The team needs to take a step forward someday. If not now, when?

Does it hold up?: You'd think so. Dangling the team's top pick – maybe for goaltending help — seems like a reasonable play. But no team in the league has been more reluctant to make big trades than Cheveldayoff and the Jets, so let's file this one under "unlikely."

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Five forgotten games that ended up changing the draft lottery results

Saturday night's lottery certainly shook up the draft order, with four of the league's worst teams suffering the dreaded three-spot drop while the Devils, Flyers and Stars all moved up.

We probably should have seen at least part of that coming. Earlier in the week, I predicted that the Devils would win because they had the lottery's most unbeatable good luck charm: Taylor Hall. He was drafted with a lottery-winning choice, he stuck around Edmonton for multiple lottery wins, he was eventually traded for another player taken with a lottery-winning choice, and now he's willed his team to yet another one. By the time it was made official, even Hall himself was having some fun with it.

But were Saturday night's results really inevitable? Maybe not. The beauty of the NHL system is that once you know which spots in the standings held ended up holding the winning combos, you can go back and play "what if?" with certain games during the season. That's how you get Patrik Stefan's empty net miss costing the Oilers the Patrick Kane pick, or how a comical Ryan Getzlaf giveaway ends up costing the Coyotes the services of Patrik Laine.

Now that we know which spots in this year's standings turned out to be the lucky ones – 27th, 19th and 24th if you're keeping track – let's take another run at some alternate history with five games that may have single-handedly changed the lottery results. Warning: This can get painful for certain teams. You've been warned, Canucks fans.

March 19, 2017 – Hurricanes at Flyers

The Flyers and Hurricanes both went into this late-season matchup desperately needing a win. Tied at 72 points, both teams were seven back of the Maple Leafs for the final playoff spot and needed to all but run the table to have a shot at the postseason.

It turned out to be a good game, with the Flyers taking a 2-0 lead early in the second before the Hurricanes pushed back to tie it. It stayed that way until a Jordan Staal goal midway through the third gave Carolina a 3-2 lead, and a shot a crucial road win.

But with the goalie pulled in the final minute, the Flyers tied it up on a fluke. Travis Konecny's attempt at a centering pass got caught in the feet of Hurricanes' defenseman Brett Pesce, who accidentally kicked it into this own net. That sent the game to overtime, where Brayden Schenn won it for Philadelphia less than 40 seconds in.

At the time, the loss seemed like one more blow to the Hurricanes fading playoff hopes. But it ended up being something more. If Carolina avoids Pesce's accidental own goal and holds on for a regulation win, they finish the year with 88 points, passing the Flyers for 19th spot. That would have made it a Hurricanes logo that Bill Daly flipped over for the second overall pick, the first lottery win in Carolina franchise history.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News