Saturday, March 31, 2018

Saturday storylines: The dream of the all-Canadian final

Welcome to the penultimate Saturday of the regular season. We’ve got a full day ahead of us, with a dozen games in total. One of those games even features 100 per cent of an entire country’s playoff teams, so let’s start there.

HNIC Game of the Night: Jets at Maple Leafs

Yes, I know, even mentioning the possibility of any game being a Stanley Cup Final preview is a reach. It’s almost a clichéd way to treat a late-season game between two decent teams from opposing conferences. And we’re almost always wrong, because in the parity era the Cup matchups often end up feeling nearly random, so we’ll inevitably get to June and be presented with a pairing that nobody’s even thinking about right now.

But still… just imagine.

The Leafs and Jets will be Canada’s only two playoff teams this year, which feels like a letdown after last year’s crowded field of five. But while the nation will head into the post-season low on quantity, the quality factor may be better than it’s been in years. When was the last time there were two Canadian teams that ranked as genuine contenders, and maybe even borderline favourites? Based on points percentage, the Leafs and Jets are shaping up to be the best Canadian one-two combo of the cap era; only the Senators and Canucks in 2007 come all that close.

So, futile as it may be, we can be forgiven for looking ahead and hoping. Because, man, a Leafs-Jets final would be something else. Both teams are young and stacked with offensive firepower. Both cities have been waiting years for any kind of a playoff run. Mix in the Patrik LaineAuston Matthews debate and Paul Maurice coming back to haunt the team that fired him, and the stories write themselves.

But that wouldn’t even be the main attraction. This is the time of year when we inevitably start hearing about ‘Canada’s Team,’ and whether the country’s fans should unite behind a common cause. It’s almost always nonsense, because Canadian fans don’t think that way. But as we’ve argued before, this year’s Jets may be the only team that could actually pull it off. Winnipeg fans have had so little to cheer about over the years that the rest of the country hasn’t built up any resentment yet. Mix in how likeable the team is and the whole ‘lost our franchise for 15 years’ thing, and if the entire nation was ever going to come together to cheer a team on, this might be this one.

And, of course, it wouldn’t hurt that they’d be playing Toronto. This year’s Maple Leafs are all sorts of fun to watch, and you could list a dozen reasons why Canadian fans should get behind them too. But they won’t. They never will. That’s just how it works in a country where it seems like half the fans root for the Leafs, and the other half root for whoever just beat the Leafs. Put the Jets’ feel-good story on one side of the ledger and a long-suffering Leafs Nation on the other, and you might just tear this country apart.

It would be awesome.

We just have to get there. That’s where things get a little bit tricky, since both teams are facing a tough road out of their own division, let alone all the way to the Final. The Leafs will probably have to go through both Tampa and Boston, while the Jets will presumably have to get by Minnesota and Nashville. As good as both teams are, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see one or both go home early.

Tonight’s game won’t provide all that much in the way of drama — it doesn’t matter much to a Leafs team that’s locked into third spot in the Atlantic, and the Jets are going to finish second in the Central. But it should still provide a good dose of drama, if only because it’s just the second meeting of the year between the two teams. The first came way back on opening night, when the Leafs arrived in Winnipeg and blew the doors off on the way to a 7-2 win. Plenty has changed since then, and maybe we get the payback game tonight. But another dominating performance from Toronto just might plant a few seeds of doubt in a young Jets team.

Would those seeds would sprout into anything by, say, early June? It’s a long shot, and everyone knows it. But for now, at least, Canadian fans can dare to dream just a little.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 30, 2018

Grab bag: I for one welcome our new lacrosse overlords

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Sorry, old school, the era of the lacrosse move has arrived
- We need to stop twisting ourselves into knots over what an expansion team is
- An Easter-themed obscure player
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we got back 28 years to watch Dave Taylor go back 13 more years in an April Fools' YouTube clip

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Podcast: Down the stretch they come

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- A look at the playoff races with less than two weeks to go.
- We try very hard not to get back into the Hart Trophy debate and fail miserably.
- Randy Carlyle and the Ducks may have just broken 3-on-3 overtime
- The Georges Laraque/Taylor Hall mess
- Reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Ten fun facts about Doug Gilmour's record-setting 1992-93 season

Today marks the 25th anniversary of a big moment in Toronto Maple Leafs history. It was on this day in 1993 that Doug Gilmour assisted on a Dave Andreychuk goal to give the Leafs a 2–0 lead over the Oilers. The goal itself didn’t end up mattering all that much — the Leafs rolled to a relatively easy 6–2 win. But the assist gave Gilmour his 118th point of the year, breaking Darryl Sittler’s franchise record for points in a year that had stood since 1977–78.

As readers of this site are well aware, the Maple Leafs are an overlooked franchise that rarely gets much media coverage. So I thought it would be fun to look back on Gilmour’s big moment, with 118 fun facts about Doug Gilmour’s record-breaking season.

(Editor’s note: Yeah, 118 sounds excessive even for a Leafs homer like you. Maybe dial it down to 10?)

See what I mean? It’s tough to root for a team that gets so little attention. Fine, 10 fun facts it is.

1. There wasn’t exactly a ton of suspense when it came to Gilmour breaking the record

Gilmour had been on pace to shatter the record pretty much all season long, and he’d already become just the second Maple Leafs to ever hit the 100-point mark a few weeks earlier. When the Leafs took the ice in Edmonton that night, they still had 10 games left in the season, so barring an injury it wasn’t so much a question of whether Gilmour would break the mark but when, and by how much.

The “when” turned out to be that night, and the “how much” ended up being double digits, as Gilmour finished the year with 127 points. And he wasn’t done yet.

2. It wasn’t the only team scoring record Gilmour set that year

In addition to breaking the franchise-points record, Gilmour also topped two other important marks held by Sittler.

He finished the 1992–93 season with 95 assists, shattering Sittler’s mark of 72 (also set in 1977–78). That remains one of the highest marks ever, with only five players having ever recorded more helpers in a season – Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Adam Oates and Joe Thornton.

Maybe more impressively, Gilmour established another Leafs record for points in a single post-season. Sittler had set that mark in 1977, with 21, but Gilmour had him beat before the end of the second round. He finished the playoffs with 35 points, which remains tied for the eighth most in NHL history, as well as the most ever by a player whose team didn’t make the final.

The good news for Sittler is that at least he got to keep his NHL record for points in a game, although Gilmour managed to get his name into the record book for a different single-game mark. On Feb. 13, he assisted on all six Maple Leafs goals in a 6–1 win over the Dallas Star. That left him one back of the all-time NHL record for assists in a game, but tied the Leafs’ team mark, matching Babe Pratt’s output from a 1944 contest.

3. Nobody really saw all this coming

In hindsight, Gilmour’s transformation from respected top-six centre to unquestioned superstar feels inevitable. He’d been underused and perhaps under-appreciated in Calgary, where he was simply one of several top forwards on a Cup contender. The trade to Toronto was his opportunity to show what he could do as The Guy, and he made the most of it, embracing the big-market spotlight and having the sort of breakout season he’d always had in him.

It makes sense, and there’s probably a certain amount of truth in it. But even with the benefit of a nice narrative, it’s still remarkable how much of a jump Gilmour made in that first full year in Toronto. After all, this wasn’t some kid just entering his prime — Gilmour was already 29 years old and playing his 10th NHL season in 1992-93. He’d put up decent numbers for just about all of that time, but never anything approaching his 127-point breakout. His previous career best had been 105 points with the Blues back in 1986–87, and he’d had only one other season in which he’d even been over 90.

Even after coming over to Toronto midway through the 1991–92 season, Gilmour’s numbers were very good but hardly jaw-dropping. He put up 49 points in 40 games, just about exactly a 100-point pace. Heading into the 1992–93 season, that seemed about right – Gilmour seemed like an easy bet to lead the Leafs in scoring, but with limited talent around him the ceiling didn’t seem that high.

That thinking lasted a few weeks. Gilmour had 10 points through the team’s first five games and 20 through their first 10, and the race towards the record book was on. In hindsight, it all seemed obvious. But at the time, not so much.

Of course, at least some of that surprise had to do with some important context: The entire 1992–93 season was ridiculous.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 26, 2018

Weekend wrap: What we know, what we don't

Two weeks to go. That’s it. Two weeks from today, the regular season will be over and we’ll be on to the playoffs. We’ll be breaking down matchups without any of those “if the playoffs started today” caveats. We’ll know what the lottery odds look like. Awards voters will be hard at work on their now-public ballots. The way things are shaping up, we’ll probably also be in the middle of a few days’ worth of coach and GM firings. We’ll have a couple of days without any games, but there will be plenty to talk about, and a lot more clarity than we have right now.

But first we have to get there, and a lot can change in two weeks. So today, let’s take a moment to regroup and figure out where we’re at after the weekend’s action.

For starters, we can narrow down the playoff picture. The Flames are done. The Stars almost certainly are, too, after a pair of brutal weekend losses that saw them blow a third-period lead against the Bruins on Friday and then cough up a must-win against the Canucks last night. They’ve lost eight straight and are five points back, and the group ahead of them all have a game in hand. Unless Ben Bishop makes a miraculous recovery, the Stars aren’t going to be able to make up that ground.

That means it’s down to the Kings, Ducks, Avalanche and Blues in the West, with three spots up for grabs. The Blues are the surprise of that group, given how they’d all but surrendered at the deadline, but weekend wins over the Canucks and Blue Jackets made it five straight for them, so here we are.

One last thing we know about the Western Conference: Seven games of Predators vs. Jets needs to happen. Make it so, NHL. Rig it if you need to. After last night’s Jets win in a 5–4 barnburner, anything else will feel like a letdown. Just no shootouts this time, OK?

Over in the East, the Panthers are the only outsider with a chance. They’re chasing the Devils and (maybe) the Flyers and Blue Jackets, with everyone else home and cooled. Both division titles remain up for grabs, as is the possibility of the Leafs finishing with the conference’s third-best record, starting the playoffs on the road, and forcing us into a two-week national dialogue about the playoff format.

Filed under “still too close to call,” we’ve got the scoring race (although barely), the Rocket Richard, and the battle for both the Presidents’ Trophy and dead last overall.

That’s a lot left to figure out, and not much time to do it. Two weeks may not be much, but right now it’s all we’ve got. On to the power rankings…

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (47-21-7, +46 true goals differential*): Saturday’s OT loss to the Avalanche may have been the game of the weekend, at least among those that didn’t involve the Predators and Jets. We get a rematch tonight. First-round playoff preview? Yes, please.

4. Winnipeg Jets (45-19-10, +53): Last night’s win clinches their playoff spot. In other news, Blake Wheeler is going to try really hard not to fight any more teammates in practice.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Saturday Storylines: Extinguished Flames

We’ve got a dozen games on the schedule tonight, and with two weeks left in the season all eyes will be on the teams that are still alive in the playoff hunt. For our key game tonight, we’re going to get really generous with our definition of “still alive.”

HNIC Game of the Night:Flames at Sharks

We don’t need any complicated set-up here. Things are very simple for the Calgary Flames right now. Any margin for error is long gone. They need to win tonight in San Jose, and then win again in L.A. on Monday. And then they’ll almost certainly have to win every game the rest of the way. Then they need to hope for a miracle.

Even seven straight wins would get them to only 94 points, and that wouldn’t be enough unless somebody collapses. Odds are, it’s already over, and a win tonight only postpones the inevitable for a few more days. That’s the reality in Calgary, and the reality is ugly. So let’s be kind and pretend the Flames are still in this thing, if only as an excuse to get invested in what had seemed to be looming as a big game just a week ago.

Even if you’re not a Flames fan, it may be worth rooting for Calgary to stay in it tonight. That’s because after a long season in which there wasn’t much separation between the middle 20 or so teams, we suddenly find ourselves staring down the possibility of a final few weeks without all that much of a playoff race.

The Eastern Conference is already down to the Devils and Panthers fighting for one spot, barring a late collapse by the Flyers. We’d expected the Hurricanes, Islanders and maybe even Rangers to be in the mix down the stretch, but no such luck.

The Western race is a little tighter, but if we write off the Flames then we’re down to just the Blues and Stars still chasing spots. And even that might be generous to Dallas, who’ve lost seven straight and are missing Ben Bishop. Depending on how the next few days play out, it’s not inconceivable that we could go into the final week with all 16 playoff spots more or less wrapped up.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. If you’re a Calgary fan looking for optimism, you could point out that the Flames did manage to rip off seven straight not all that long ago, back when everything was clicking and certain dummies were penciling them in for a long playoff run. It happened then. Why not now, right?

Don’t actually answer that; the list of reasons why it won’t happen is a long one. Even the Flames seem to realize that, given that they’re shutting down Sean Monahan for the season. But every miracle journey begins with a single step, so here we go. At the very least, the plan isn’t all that complicated right now. Win out, then hope. It’s not much, but it’s all the Flames have got, and it starts this afternoon.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 23, 2018

Grab Bag: It don't matter if you're black-and-white

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The brilliant fix for goaltender interference that's gaining support yet sounds vaguely familiar
- If we really need to change the Hart Trophy, I have an idea about how we should do it
- An obscure player who shows why just drafting the best player available can sometimes spell disaster
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a look back at the montage video the Kings put together for Wayne Gretzky's record-breaking 802nd goal

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Podcast: Meeting of the minds

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- The GMs gather for the annual meeting, and oh god that means we have to talk about interference again
- Everyone's mad at Colin Campbell for saying goalies embellish even though he's right
- Why do the GMs get to decide the rules anyway?
- Dave came up with 42 ways to fix the NHL; I have a few objections
- The Hurricanes go cheap on their hunt for a new GM
- The great Hart Trophy war of 2018 drags on with no end in sight
- I am repeatedly accused of being a Habs fan
- Reader questions and lots more

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Ranking the ten best Rocket Richard races

With less than three weeks left in the season, most of the attention is focused on the playoff races. And rightly so, as teams battle it out down to the wire to see who’ll earn a spot and how the matchups will sort out.

But there are other races worth watching, including for some of the individual honours. The Art Ross battle is shaping up as a great one, with season-long leader Nikita Kucherov trying to fend off late surges from Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Evgeni Malkin among others. Meanwhile, Kucherov’s teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy is trying to hold off Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck for the wins title.

But with all due respect to those races, the best of the bunch is for the Rocket Richard Trophy. The goal-scoring title is shaping up as a potential head-to-head fight to the finish between Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, a classic contest between the old guard and the next generation. Laine is the teenaged whiz kid hungry to claim the title in just his second season, while Ovechkin represents the grizzled veteran who isn’t ready to give it up. Mix in Malkin, Eric Staal, the stunning underdog story of William Karlsson and a few others, and this one could come down to the wire. If so, it may be remembered as one of the greatest Rocket Richard races we’ve ever seen.

So today, let’s put together that list, if only to give Laine and Ovechkin something to aim for. The Rocket Richard Trophy has been around since the 1998–99 season, giving us 18 races to work with. Some of those were duds; even in the dead-puck era, the award has been won by a margin of 10 goals or more a half-dozen times. We’ll narrow it down to a top 10, counting our way down to the best race we’ve seen… at least until this year’s.

No. 10: 2000–01

The race: One year after running away with the 2000 title by 14 goals, Pavel Bure had his sights set on a second straight win. It seemed like he’d get it by a similar margin, but a late-season slump saw him finish with just one goal in his final six. That opened the door for two veteran stars who finished hot: Jaromir Jagr, who scored nine in his last six games, and Joe Sakic, who had eight in his last four.

The winner: Bure had built such a big lead that the strong finishes only managed to make the gap respectable. Bure took home the crown with 59 goals, easily topping Sakic (54) and Jagr (52).

The legacy: As races go, it wasn’t all that dramatic. But the fact that it featured three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers earns it a spot in our top 10, narrowly beating out Corey Perry‘s win in the similarly lopsided 2011 race.

No. 9: 1998–99

The race: The Rocket Richard didn’t even exist when the season began; it was only unveiled that January. Still, it looked like Teemu Selanne would capture the inaugural trophy relatively easily when he hit the 45-goal mark with eight games to play. But he went cold down the stretch, opening the door for a field that included Jagr, Alexie Yashin, Tony Amonte and John Leclair to at least make things interesting.

The winner: Jagr and Amonte made a late push, with each scoring four times in their final three games to hit the 44-goal mark. But Selanne coasted home to the crown, finishing the year with 47.

The legacy: The race was just OK, and is probably best remembered just for being the first for the new trophy. Still, given the increased profile that came with attaching Richard’s name to the goal-scoring race, Selanne felt like a worthy winner. An odd fact: The 47 goals made this only the fifth-highest goal-scoring season of his career, but it was the only time he ended up alone in top spot on the leaderboard.

No. 8: 2015–16

The race: It came down to a two-horse race, with Alex Ovechkin gunning for his fourth straight crown while Patrick Kane looked for his first.

The winner: Kane finished the season with a two-goal performance, but Ovechkin topped him with a hat trick. That gave him the title by a four-goal cushion, and even that makes it sound closer than it really was — Kane needed seven goals in his last five to even get that close, and nobody else came within nine of Ovechkin.

The legacy: In terms of star power, this race was right up there; Kane took home the Hart Trophy that season, and Ovechkin had already won it three times. But there wasn’t much suspense, beyond wondering whether Ovechkin would get to 50. He did, with 10 minutes to spare.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 19, 2018

Weekend wrap: The beginning of the end

The NHL regular season is a long story. It lasts six months, and there are stretches where it feels like we’ve settled into a status quo. Things happen, many of them important, even if we don’t always recognize them at the time. Every chapter along the way matters, and even a rough few weeks can spell the end of a team’s chances. But for the most part, the season unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, and even a week-to-week feature like this one sometimes struggles to find something new to talk about. It’s never boring. It’s just that things move slowly.

That is, right up until we get to the end. Welcome to the end.

With three weeks left in the season, we’ve hit the part of the schedule where things change quickly in noticeable ways. For example, this week saw the appearance of the first “x.” You know the “x” — the little symbol that appears in the standings next to a team that’s clinched its playoff spot. The first few don’t really tell us much, because they appear next to teams that we already knew were playoff locks. That was the case when the Predators became the first team to earn the honour, and it remained true yesterday when the Lightning joined them.

But the “x” serves as a signal that the urgency is picking up, with every one that appears representing one fewer playoff spot available for the taking. There’s two on the standings page now, but those will be joined by several more in the days to come. Soon, those x’s will be joined by the y’s and z’s and eventually even the “p” for Presidents’ Trophy. Those letters mean we can finally drop all those “maybe” and “probably” and “likely” qualifiers and start talking about what actually is. They mean that there’s no turning back.

Likewise, this was the week that a few teams earned the dreaded “e,” signalling their mathematical elimination from the playoffs. The NHL doesn’t like that one, and doesn’t use it on its own standings page, but we know it’s out there. In recent days, the Sabres, Coyotes and Canucks have all been put out of their misery, and the Red Wings and Senators are days away from joining them. Again, none of this is breaking news to fans of those teams. But the finality of seeing the “e,” especially with weeks still to play, drives home that the season really is a write-off.

That leaves the middle ground of teams who still aren’t sure which letter they’ll get, and that’s where the real fun starts. For the first few months of the season, we’ve all got plenty of time to craft long-range narratives about who’s heading in the right direction and who might fall short. In these final weeks, it starts to feel like everything gets thrown out the window after every game.

The Panthers are on fire and heading towards an inevitable playoff berth? Not when they blow a third-period lead to cough up a game to the Oilers on home ice. The Devils are fading and facing an impossibly tough schedule? Chalk up road wins over the Predators, Knights and Kings, and suddenly they’re looking comfortable again. The Blues have raised the white flag on the season? Wins in four of five have them right back in the mix. The top three in the Metro is locked in? Let’s see what the Blue Jackets and their seven straight wins have to say about it. The inconsistent Flames are fumbling away a wild-card spot? Well, look, we didn’t say that everything was changing.

But who knows, the Flames could always roll off four straight wins this week and send the script careening in a different direction. That’s what one good (or bad) stretch can do when it gets this late. But with only three weeks left, time is running out.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (46-21-5, +44 true goals differential*): They’d lost four straight at home, giving up 21 goals along the way, and needed an easy win to get things back on track. Luckily for them, the Flames arrived just in time.

4. Winnipeg Jets (43-19-10, +51): Mark Scheifele returned to the lineup and had an assist in last night’s win. But they may have lost Jacob Trouba.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday storylines: Spoiler alert

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a special occasion, one that hockey fans typically spend drinking slightly more beer than usual, thinking, “Wait, why is my team wearing green?” and watching old YouTube clips of people punching each other.

Today, fans can also spend it with 10 matchups, including a classic Canadian rivalry.

HNIC Game of the Night: Canadiens at Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs and Canadiens have been back in the same division for nearly two decades now, and they’ve spent most of that time engaged in a strange dance where only one team at a time can be any good. When the Leafs were contending for a Cup under Pat Quinn around the turn of the century, the Habs mostly missed the playoffs. When the Canadiens followed that up by making the post-season in eight of the first 10 post-lockout seasons, the Maple Leafs decidedly did not. And now that Toronto is finally good again, Montreal seems to be on the verge of a rebuild.

But through it all, it’s been a consistent truth that games between the teams always seemed to be good, or at least memorable. Even when one team was awful and had nothing to play for, there was something about the Toronto/Montreal matchup that could be counted on to produce at least a little magic. Whether it was a dramatic goal or some bad blood or a serenade gone wrong, something fun would happen. You can scoff at lame stories about rivalries and history and ghosts all you want, but the Leafs and Habs usually delivered.

Tonight will put that theory to the test. The Canadiens don’t have much of anything left to play for, and come in having lost six of their last seven. With Shea Weber, Carey Price and Max Pacioretty all out of the lineup with long-term injuries, the Habs are clearly in just-get-it-over-with mode down the stretch. Even the usual narrative about playing for next year’s jobs only goes so far, as we’re not even sure whether the current GM will still be around to make those roster calls. You could forgive Montreal fans if they were more interested in making little heart-eyes at John Tavares than in watching what’s left of this roster play out the string.

Meanwhile, the Leafs come into this one riding a franchise-record 11-game home winning streak. It’s been an impressive run, especially with most of it coming without Auston Matthews. But it hasn’t done much to change the standings, where Toronto remains locked into third place in the Atlantic. With 10 games left in the regular season after this one, the Leafs would probably prefer to fast-forward straight to the playoffs, if only to avoid any more injuries like the ones that have claimed Matthews, Frederik Andersen and most recently Leo Komarov.

So two teams, only one of which is any good, and neither with much of anything to play for. And yet… well, it’s still Toronto and Montreal. As eye-rolling as the premise may be, there really is something special about seeing the league’s oldest rivalry play out on a Saturday night. And with the way these things tend to go, would anyone be all that shocked to see a depleted Montreal roster arrive in town and pull off the upset, snapping the Leafs’ record-setting win streak in the process?

If you’ve followed this rivalry over the years, you know to expect the unexpected by now. At the very least, Toronto fans may want to keep the victory songs to themselves until the final buzzer.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 16, 2018

Grab Bag: Ten Commandments of Replay Review

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- In an important message for hockey fans of the future, I spell out the Ten Commandments of Adding More Replay Review
- The mysterious injury problem that's sweeping the league, just like it does every year
- An obscure player who snapped the longest goal-scoring drought ever
- The week's three comedy stars are homer-ific
- And a YouTube breakdown of the big brawl from the St. Patrick's Day Massacre. No, the other one.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Podcast: Ovechkin's 600th

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Alexander Ovechkin gets his 600th; where does he rank all-time?
- Why are we surprised that Carolina fired Ron Francis?
- The Leafs front office drama
- Dave makes fun of the way I say "drama"
- Should there be a limit on winning draft lotteries?
- The playoff format is weird, and we come up with a better way
- Evgeni Malkin's case for the Hart Trophy
- Our predictions for who'll come out of the Western wildcard race
- Reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Plotting out the ideal 2018 playoffs

It’s too early to start thinking ahead to how the 2018 playoffs could play out. It’s always too early. Even when you’re down to the final week of the season, it’s too early. As soon as you start looking forward to a matchup that’s all but locked in, the hockey gods will notice your happiness and reach down to smite it.

Remember a few years ago when we were all but assured of the first Toronto/Montreal matchup in 34 years, and then it all fell apart on the season’s final day? That’s because somebody out there got excited and ruined it. (That was me. I did that.)

So if your knee-jerk reaction to the premise of this post is “It’s too early, dummy,” then yes, you’re right. But we’re doing it anyway, if only so we can squeeze some enjoyment out of what might happen before we’re hit with the inevitable letdown of what actually does.

Because here’s the thing: The 2018 playoffs are shaping up to be fantastic. With a break here or there, we could get some truly amazing matchups. And not just in the first round, but all the way through. So today, let’s go through the realistic scenarios and try to settle on the best possible way that the entire tournament could play out.

We’re coming at this from the perspective of a neutral fan — obviously, your ideal playoffs would be the one where your team wins the Cup by going 16-0. And the matchups have to be plausible, so we can’t move anybody up or down too many spots in the standings just to create a dream pairing. But as we’ll see, we don’t really have to. With just a few tweaks to the current standings, things get really interesting in a big hurry.


The matchup: #3 Maple Leafs vs. #2 Bruins

Let’s start with an easy one, since this matchup has felt like it was inevitable for most of the season. There’s plenty to like here. It’s an Original Six matchup, it’s two good teams who’ve had some entertaining games recently, and there would be some fun matchup questions, like Auston Matthews vs. Patrice Bergeron.

And of course, the ghost of 2013 would hang over everything. The Maple Leafs’ legendary collapse in that series would be front and centre, even though most of the current roster wasn’t around for it and Mitch Marner doesn’t even look like he was born yet. Toronto fans will get sick of hearing about “It was 4–1” pretty much immediately, but it will add plenty of extra drama for everyone else.

Ideal outcome: This is a little trickier. If you’re someone who doesn’t like the Maple Leafs — and lord knows, there are plenty of you — then your ideal outcome here is a seventh game in which Toronto blows a 5–1 lead, followed by all their fans abandoning society forever and going off to live in the woods. But we’re trying to build the best possible tournament, so we’ll give the Maple Leafs a redemptive win.

The matchup: #WC2 Panthers vs. #1 Lightning

Florida’s late-season charge to an unlikely playoff berth rolls on. They were a dozen points out in January, but have stormed back to make things interesting. They’re a fun underdog story, led by the ageless Roberto Luongo. And if they go on a run, we all get to throw rats at people.

But here’s the best part. If they sneak into the last wild-card spot, look what’s waiting for them in the first round: The first ever Battle of Florida. The two teams have been in the same division for nearly a quarter of a century and have never met in the playoffs. Our ideal post-season makes it happen.

Ideal outcome: Underdog stories are great. Also great: the Lightning, who should win the series easily. Sorry, Panthers.

The matchup: #2 Penguins vs. #3 Flyers

This is a good rivalry that could use some rekindling, and there’s no better way to do that than with a first-round matchup.

These two teams have met in the playoffs three times during the cap era, but not since 2012. You might remember that as one of the crazier playoff rounds in recent memory, featuring games that ended with finals like 8–4, 8–5 and 10–3, and plenty of bad blood along the way.

A repeat performance is too much to ask for, but anything that even came close would be fantastic.

Ideal outcome: As much as the Flyers would love to be the ones to end the Penguins’ reign, we’re going to send the defending champs a little deeper into this bracket. Pittsburgh wins.

The matchup: #WC1 Devils vs. #1 Capitals

Look, they can’t all be dream matchups. But Devils/Caps would give us a nice old-school Patrick Division pairing, not to mention a fun Taylor Hall vs. Alex Ovechkin head-to-head, which would lead to a bunch of “best left winger in hockey” takes that would make Johnny Gaudreau fans really mad.

But if you wanted to swap in the Blue Jackets or Hurricanes here, go ahead. It won’t really matter, because…

Ideal outcome: The Capitals have to advance for the second-round matchup we all know is coming.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 12, 2018

Weekend wrap: There's no fixing interference reviews

The NHL played some games this weekend, so needless to say we’re all angry about goaltender-interference reviews.

That’s been a recurring theme through most of the second half (as opposed to the first half, when we were all angry about offside reviews). The latest chapter came on Saturday in Toronto, when a controversial interference call may have cost the Penguins the game. With the Leafs leading 3–0, Brian Dumoulin appeared to cut the lead to 3–1. But referee Dan O’Halloran ruled that Dumoulin had interfered with Frederik Andersen and awarded a minor penalty, wiping out the goal and sending the Leafs to the power play. Toronto scored to make it 4–0, then held on to take a 5–2 final.

Saturday’s controversy didn’t actually involve a review, which is part of the problem. If a referee simply waves off a goal, the play can be challenged, but if a penalty is issued then there’s no review allowed. So the Penguins were out of luck, even as replays showed that the contact was minimal and that Dumoulin may have been directed into the crease by Ron Hainsey. Would a review have resulted in the call being overturned? Probably not, but we didn’t get a chance to find out.

It’s the latest flare-up in the never-ending interference debate, and having this one come on a Hockey Night in Canada game between two high-profile teams ensured that everyone would be weighing in. It comes just a few days after another controversy that also featured the Leafs, when a Sabres goal following what appeared to be far more blatant interference on Andersen was allowed to stand on Monday.

That had Mike Babcock ominously warning that when it came to interference, the league “better get it solved” before the playoffs. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan largely echoed that sentiment on Saturday. Everyone seems to agree that this is a mess, and that the league needs to fix it.

Except for one problem: They can’t. There is no fix, because these calls are largely subjective. You can tweak the rules and interpretations and where the line is drawn as much as you want, but you’re never going to get anywhere close to a situation where everyone is on the same page.

Instead, it’s becoming clear that the league made a major mistake by making goaltender interference subject to replay review in the first place. There’s a reason why pro sports leagues have traditionally limited replay review to calls that should be black and white, and leave the judgment calls to the officials in real time. We’re seeing it now.

You could make the case that both of this week’s Maple Leafs calls were correct based on the rulebook. The Buffalo goal came on contact just outside the crease, while Dumoulin’s lighter nudge was clearly in the blue paint, so the rules for the two plays work differently. Years ago, fans may have simply shrugged off the two calls as the sort of grey-area decisions that can go either way in a specific game but tend to even out over the course of a season. But not anymore, because by subjecting interference calls to review in the name of “getting it right,” the NHL raised the bar. Now, fans expect a level of consistency that we don’t see on any other judgment calls. When a referee makes a subjective call we don’t like for holding, or roughing, or cross-checking, we complain a little here and there and then get on with our lives. But with interference, we’ve been trained to break every play down frame-by-frame, searching for an obvious answer that just isn’t there.

You want to solve this? Get rid of interference review entirely and jut let the referees do their job. Will there still be controversial calls? Of course. Will there be calls that are outright wrong? Sure, sometimes. That’s life in pro sports. We used to be able to live with it. Now we have a system that’s slow and confusing, and nobody is the slightest bit happier about the calls it’s churning out. So get rid of it. Ride out the season, pray to the hockey gods that we don’t see a playoff series ruined by one of these things, and then scrap the review altogether in the off-season.

Instead, the NHL has apparently decided to respond to the problem by telling everyone to stop complaining. Good luck with that, guys.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (44-19-5, +46 true goals differential*): Vegas flu advisory; after tonight’s game in Philadelphia, they’re home for eight of the next 10.

4. Boston Bruins (43-16-8, +53): Brad Marchand missed yesterday’s game with an injury, but escaped any supplemental discipline for his collision with Anthony Duclair.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Saturday storylines: Kids and the Hall

In the words of the immortal Badger Bob Johnson, it’s a great day for hockey. Emphasis on the “day,” as seven of today’s eleven games will start in the afternoon — or even the morning, depending on how far west you are. That includes four 1:00 ET games, making it the day’s busiest start time. But the best matchup of the day is one of the few evening games, and we’ll start there.

HNIC Game of the Night: Penguins at Maple Leafs

This is the third Saturday-night meeting between these two teams, with the last coming just three weeks ago. But plenty has changed on both sides since then.

The trade deadline was part of that, with the Penguins making a big change by bringing in Derick Brassard while the Maple Leafs went the more conservative route by settling for Tomas Plekanec. We’ve also seen a pair of major injuries since that last meeting, with Auston Matthews (shoulder) and Matt Murray (concussion) both sidelined; neither is expected to play tonight, although it sounds like Matthews might be getting close.

But the bigger story, at least in Toronto, is the change in the team’s fortunes since the last matchup. The Leafs went into that one riding a five-game win streak that had them back within range of the Bruins and Lightning in the Atlantic race. That streak had included wins over the Lightning and Predators. Things were good.

They’re no longer good, at least temporarily. The Leafs lost that Penguins game but then rolled off four more wins. But since then it’s been four straight losses, matching a season high, with the nadir coming in Monday’s 5-3 loss to the lowly Sabres. That slump has put an end to any talk of moving up from third spot in the Atlantic, and it’s raised some concerns over Frederik Andersen‘s play. Even when the Leafs were rolling, it was often due to their goaltender’s strong play. Now he’s given up five goals in each of the last two games, and three or more in five straight, and it’s fair to wonder if his workload is catching up to him. If so, the Maple Leafs might be in trouble.

Of course, that’s the nature of goaltending, and if Andersen stands on his head and shuts out the Penguins tonight then we’ll all declare that he’s back and move on to the next narrative. A win tonight would go a long way to calming any jittery Leafs fans out there and keep this four-game mini-slump from turning into something more. We’re still a long way away from any talk of 18-wheelers and cliffs, but it would be nice to nip this streak in the bud before we get there.

As for the Penguins, they come in riding three straight wins and holding down first place in a tight Metro race. After Phil Kessel‘s early heroics carried the team long enough for Sidney Crosby to heat up by mid-season, now it’s Evgeni Malkin who’s looking scary, with eight points in his last four to sneak into the Art Ross conversation. That’s not the guy you want to see when your goalie is slumping.

Hey, speaking of stars riding hot streaks that make Canadian fans sad…

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 9, 2018

Grab bag: Survey says

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Going through the results of the NHLPA player survey
- Seattle expansion, and what it means for Quebec City
- An obscure player who helped turn around an even worse Chicago team than this one
- The week's three comedy stars, including a math debate
- And in a week where everyone says Canucks fans are too negative, our YouTube breakdown features a nice man from New York who has nice things to say about them

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Podcast: Running interference

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Mike Babcock and the Leafs are mad about goaltender interference, so I... defend the NHL? Wait that can't be right.
- What's wrong with goaltender interference and why it can't be fixed
- Who should be MVP this year?
- What does "MVP" really even mean?
- My reason why we should secretly hope Taylor Hall wins
- No but really can we just call Hall's point streak a point streak
- The Leafs and Caps took it outside, and NBC cut away early
- The Panthers look like they're going to make the playoffs
- Reader mail, including an innocent question about pointing out typos that sets me off on a rant

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Evaluating the GM class of 2014

Hockey fans love to review, rank and debate draft classes. Is this year’s any good? Was 2003 better than 1979? How does the Oilers’ class of 1980 hold up against the Red Wings’ haul in 1989?

But what about the guys who make those draft picks? Each year also brings a new class of NHL GMs, and like draft picks, some years are better than others. This off-season is shaping up to be a busy one in that regard, with plenty of GMs on the hot seat and the possibility of some major changes around NHL front offices.

With that in mind, it seems like a good time to look back at the 2014 off-season that saw eight teams anoint a new GM. According to the archives over at NHL Trade Tracker, that was the busiest single year of turnover since 2006, which was the year a bunch of NHL teams realized that the new post-lockout rules would require some fresh thinking. Other high-turnover years include 2000 (eight new GMs), 1997 (nine, including the expansion Predators), 1994 (eight) and 1974 (nine, including the expansion Scouts and Capitals).

Why was 2014 so busy? It’s hard to say, although history shows that the years immediately before and after lockouts tend to bring significant change to NHL front offices. The 2013 class had been busy in its own right, with six changes, and seven if you count coach Patrick Roy being briefly slotted in ahead of Greg Sherman on the Avs’ org chart. But the years before had been unusually stable, with just one new GM each in 2011 and 2012, so there was some pent-up demand for change. That feels a little like the situation right now, with only six GM changes (including the first hire for the expansion Golden Knights) since July 2015. That’s not quite as extreme as the situation heading into 2013 and 2014, but it’s not far off, so we could be in for a rocky few months ahead.

Of those eight GMs hired in 2014, seven are still on the job. (We pause here to sadly pour one out for Tim Murray.) But the clock may be ticking on them. We often say that a new GM deserves five years to implement a plan, and the Class of 2014 is about to head into year five. And history suggests that we should expect at least a few to not even make it that far – from that busy class of 2013, only Jim Nill and Jarmo Kekalainen are still employed.

So which of the 2014 GMs is in the most danger of not making it to 2019? And who’s got the best shot of being remembered as the class of the, uh, class? Let’s run through the seven names and see if we can figure it out.

Jim Benning, Canucks

The hiring: After missing the playoffs and firing Mike Gillis at the end of the season, the Canucks hired Benning away from the Boston Bruins, where he’d served as assistant GM, on May 21.

Record since: 133-142-36, one playoff appearance

Best moves: Benning came into the job with a reputation for drafting well, and he’s largely lived up to that. Getting Brock Boeser 23rd overall in 2015 was a major win, and 2017 fifth-overall pick Elias Pettersson looks like the real deal. Benning also landed a good prospect from Ottawa for the husk of Alex Burrows, and turned Sven Baertschi into a reasonably successful reclamation project from the Flames.

Worst moves: Given Benning’s image as a draft guru, 2016 pick Olli Juolevi looks like a miss. Worse, the Loui Eriksson signing felt like a flat-out disaster from day one. But the biggest objection to Benning’s tenure in Vancouver is probably the moves he didn’t make. From rarely acquiring draft picks to re-signing Erik Gudbranson to holding onto Chris Tanev, Benning hasn’t tried for the sort of full-scale teardown many fans seem to want to see.

Current outlook: A lot better than it was a month ago, thanks to the three-year extension he signed in February. That move came as a bit of a surprise, with the team on track to finish in the bottom five for the third straight year. Rebuilds take time, sure, but often it doesn’t seem like Benning knows the Canucks are rebuilding.

Odds of seeing 2019: Excellent. The importance of GM extensions can be overstated – remember when Dave Nonis got a five-year deal in 2013, Leafs fans freaked out, and then he was gone less than two years later? – but the vote of confidence from ownership and Trevor Linden means Benning will make it to the new year. Will he see his five-year anniversary in May? That looks likely, too, but another year without progress could call it into question.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 5, 2018

Weekend wrap: Flaming out

OK, maybe we were just a little premature on the whole “Western Conference final” thing.

That pick, from late January, had the Flames and Jets as the final two teams standing in the West. And half of the equation has held up pretty well. The Jets are rolling, with one of the league’s best records and a shiny new toy from the trade deadline to plug into an already loaded lineup.

But the Flames… man. At the time, they’d won seven straight, climbing as high as fifth in the West. They didn’t have much of a cushion to work with, with only four points separating them from ninth. But they were clicking, with the offence averaging nearly four goals a game during the streak and the goaltending looking solid, and they had all the momentum.

That all feels like it was a very long time ago. Today, the Flames wake up four points back of a wild-card spot, and it’s more like five since they don’t hold the tie-breaker. They’ve lost three straight, including the weekend’s unforgivable loss to a Rangers team that’s basically given up the season. And their playoff odds have plunged from over 60 percent during the streak to just over 15 percent today. Flames fans are coming to grips with the reality that this team – one that’s packed with young talent in their prime and that loaded up in the off-season in an effort to make the leap to true contenders – looks like it’s really going to blow this thing.

So what happened? Unlike most mid-season collapses, this one isn’t all that hard to figure out. It starts with that seven-game streak back in January, which was interrupted by perhaps the worst-timed bye week imaginable. All that momentum vanished over their league-mandated vacation, and they returned in time for that tough matchup against the Jets. They played OK in that one but dropped a 2–1 shootout decision. But then came a home loss to the lowly Sabres, and the losing streak was on. They’d drop six straight, wiping out just about all of the gains from the win streak.

Things seemed to get back on track with back-to-back wins over the Blackhawks, and a 3-2 win over the Islanders on Feb. 11 was their fourth in five games. But that’s the game that saw Mike Smith limp off with one second left on the clock; while there was early hope that the injury wasn’t serious, he hasn’t played since. The team chose not to acquire a veteran to plug the gap, riding with David Rittich and Jon Gillies instead, and while neither has been awful, they’re not Smith.

Realistically, the Flames need to play at a roughly 112-point pace the rest of the way to get to the 95 points that we typically use as a playoff cutoff. With three teams ahead of them, even that might not be enough if someone gets hot. The situation is dire. And it’s hard not to think ahead to the off-season and wonder what happens if a team with this much talent misses the playoffs. Will the team’s brain trust shrug it off as the result of bad luck and injuries – in addition to Smith, they’ve missed Micheal Ferland and Kris Versteeg – or do they respond with significant changes?

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, of course; as our next section will remind us, teams can sometimes go from write-offs back to contenders relatively quickly. But it’s fair to say that time is running out in Calgary. They’ve got a tough one tonight in Pittsburgh, but the schedule gets easier after that, including games this week against the Sabres, Senators and Islanders. Moral victories like Friday’s 51–shot performance against the Rangers won’t cut it — they need to bank some points, and soon. If they don’t, then the season is over. And the hard questions will be just beginning.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (42-18-5, +45 true goals differential*): Yesterday’s win over the Devils snapped their losing streak at a season-high three games.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (37-25-4, +15): They’re still holding down a spot in the top five, even though they’re only third in their own division and occasionally have games like this.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Saturday storylines: Taking it back outside

Our first post-deadline Saturday brings an unusually light schedule, with just eight games and some weird start times. That’s because the NHL is shifting the spotlight to the third and final outdoor game of the season, which is where we’ll start.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Capitals

It’s OK to admit that you kind of forgot this outdoor game was happening until a few days ago. With all the focus on the Olympics and the trade deadline, it was easy enough to forget that two of the Eastern Conference’s better teams would be facing off under the stars. Call it outdoor fatigue — man there have been a lot of these things — but the days of these games feeling like a major event seem to be fading.

That said, this one should be better than most. The location, the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., is pretty cool. The matchup is great, featuring two good teams that are fun to watch and met in last year’s playoffs. And the uniforms are… well, look, we didn’t say it was perfect. But the location and the matchup are good.

The Capitals come into this one needing every point they can get. They’ve led the Metro for most of the season, but recent surges by both the Penguins and Flyers have put that status in doubt, with Philadelphia briefly taking over top spot earlier this week. Even the Devils are still in the mix, especially after a nicely productive deadline. The Capitals would love to secure first place and home ice through the first two rounds, if only to avoid drawing the Penguins in round one. Those two teams always seem to find each other in the post-season, and it rarely goes well for Washington. Winning the division would likely mean they’d get to avoid that fate for at least a round, which should be enough motivation to finish strong.

The Maple Leafs don’t have quite the same sense of urgency, at least in terms of the standings. They still have a shot at catching the Lightning or Bruins, but it’s a long one. Chances are, they’re going to finish third in the Atlantic and start the playoffs on the road with a tough matchup. That will no doubt reignite the debate over the playoff format, since Toronto would be leading the Metro by six points, but that’s life in the NHL.

The bigger priority for Toronto is to finish strong; they’ve dropped two straight after an extended hot streak, although they picked up points in both losses. They’ll be without Auston Matthews again tonight, so we can expect to see plenty of deadline pickup Tomas Plekanec. There were no similar additions on the Washington side of the ledger, as Brian MacLellan made the interesting choice to let the deadline pass with only minor tinkering. Still, the Caps are deep and skilled, and match up well with a Toronto squad missing its best player.

On paper, it should be a great matchup. That may or may not translate on the ice; these outdoor games tend to feel tentative and choppy at times. The Leafs’ track record in that regard is actually pretty good, with a pair of entertaining wins over the Red Wings on their outdoor resumé. The Capitals have been a little more hit-and-miss, with a decent 2015 appearance overshadowed by this whole mess from 2011. We’ll see what the two teams can cook up for us tonight.

Tonight’s matchup is scheduled for an 8:00 ET start instead of the usual 7:00. And if you’re shaking off that outdoor fatigue, there’s good news: With no more Stadium Series games this year and no Heritage Classic on the schedule for next, this looks like the last outdoor action until the league heads to Notre Dame for the 2019 Winter Classic.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 2, 2018

Grab bag: Shoot the glove

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I have an idea for how we handle Henrik Lundqvist during the Rangers rebuild.
- The Derick Brassard trade may have changed everything and we missed it.
- An obscure player from the deadline day Stastny trade. No, the other one.
- The week's three comedy stars
- And this week's YouTube breakdown marks the 25th anniversary of Teemu Selanne's most memorable moment...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports