Monday, April 30, 2018

Weekend wrap: Doing the splits

Well, you knew it wouldn’t be easy.

As good as the Winnipeg Jets are, they’re facing the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Coming home up 2–0 in the series was always going to be a tough ask.

Still, they nearly pulled it off. After a strong performance in Game 1 led to a 4–1 win, the Jets went into last night’s second game in Nashville with at least some hope that they wouldn’t need to come back. Those chances took an early hit when Ryan Johansen opened the scoring less than a minute in, but a pair of quick goals put the Jets back in front.

The Predators pushed back in the second, scoring twice to retake the lead. Brandon Tanev and Johansen traded goals within seconds of each other early in the third, and the Predators looked like they might escape with the regulation win. But Mark Scheifele tied the game with a minute left, briefly silencing the Nashville crowd and sending us to overtime.

Sudden death provided the kind of hockey that’s all sorts of fun to watch if you’re neutral and agonizing if you’re not, with the two teams going up and down the ice and trading chances. The first extra period didn’t solve anything, and it took five minutes of a second frame before Kevin Fiala finally ended it.

The result means we make it out of the first weekend of the second round without any teams collecting a second win. The Sharks had tied their series with the Golden Knights with an overtime win of their own on Saturday. And the Capitals evened things with the Penguins on Sunday afternoon, although the win didn’t come without some controversy. Meanwhile the Bruins and Lightning will play their second game tonight, with Boston looking to head home as the only team in the second round to go up 2–0.

That all makes it tough to pick out any favourites, but let’s see what we can do.

Road to the Cup

5. Vegas Golden Knights: We’ll nudge them back into the top five partly on the strength of that impressive Game 1 blowout win, and partly because we’re still not sure which direction that Penguins/Capitals series is headed.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning: You never want to get too silly with the “must win” label early in a series. But with the way the Bruins looked in Game 1, tonight feels pretty close for the Lightning.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, April 27, 2018

Grab bag: Drugs are bad

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The NHL's new lottery reveal plan is good and you're all crazy for hating it
- A conversation is derailed by a visit from Hockey Pedant Man
- An obscure player who starred in another sport and helped create a hockey legend
- The week's three comedy stars
- And the 1986 Buffalo Sabres have an important message for you about drugs

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Second round playoff preview

Well, that was a bit of a letdown. After a first-round that saw just one Game 7, no significant upsets and only a handful of especially competitive series, we're onto round two. If you're keeping track, our round one picks were seven-for-eight, with three of those also nailing the correct number of games. That's not bad, but let's see if we can do better with a look ahead to round two.

Metro Division: #1 Washington Capitals vs. #2 Pittsburgh Penguins

In this corner: The Capitals (49-26-7, 105 points, +18), who survived a scare against the Blue Jackets, dropping the first two before winning four straight.

And in this corner: The Penguins (47-29-6, 100 points, +22), who beat the Flyers to make it nine straight series wins since the start of the 2016 playoffs.

Head-to-head: They split four games.

Injury report: The Penguins had to finish off the Flyers without Evgeni Malkin, and right now he's expected to miss Game 1 with his status for the remainder of the series unknown—obviously, any absence there would be huge. Carl Hagelin is also a question mark. The Capitals should have everyone other than Andre Burakovsky.

Dominant narrative: History. Every Capitals series has the cloud of past playoff failures hanging over it, and by this point the whole "How will it all go wrong?" story has probably been done to death. But with the Penguins waiting for them in round two, the past is unavoidable. The Caps have had home ice in a second-round meeting against the Penguins in each of the last two years, and each time they've lost in heart-breaking fashion. Stretching back further, they've lost seven straight series to the Penguins since 1995, and nine of ten going back to 1991. Four of those losses have come in seventh games, including last year's.

For the Capitals, the Penguins are basically the bully who stuffed you in your locker in grade school, if you'd been stuck in the same grade school for nearly 30 years and the bully kept showing up every few semesters wearing another Stanley Cup ring.

The big question: Who wins the goaltending battle? That's a big question in every series, of course, but it's especially relevant in this one. Heading into the season, you'd have figured that both teams were all set at the position, with Vezina winner Braden Holtby in Washington and two-time Cup winner Matt Murray in Pittsburgh. But Holtby struggled this year and actually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer for the first two games of the Columbus series. And Murray has been inconsistent, looking brilliant one night and shaky the next. Both these guys can steal games, but neither is inspiring much confidence right now.

One player to watch: Alexander Ovechkin. Sticking with our obvious theme, let's turn to Ovechkin. You may know him from such narratives as "never wins the big one" and "always disappears in the clutch." The first one has been kind of true, if we're being honest. But the second one hasn't been—he scored his 51st career playoff goal in the clincher in Columbus, and ranks near the top of the cap era leaderboard despite never playing past the second round.

But it doesn't matter, because nothing he does will matter until the Capitals win. If he lights up the scoreboard and the Caps lose again, he'll be the guy who only puts up numbers when it doesn't matter. If he has a quiet game or two, it will be because he's a choker. It's not fair, but that's sports. The good news is with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins showing up, Ovechkin's got yet another chance to have the sort of climb-on-my-back performance that wins the series and shuts up his critics once and for all. (At least until the next round.)

Key number: 1.10 – Career points-per-game in the postseason for Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel. That ranks second in the cap era among players with at least 30 playoffs games, trailing only Crosby's 1.15. In case you're wondering, Malkin ranks third, and Phil Kessel shows up 14th. The Penguins have a little bit of scoring depth.

Prediction: Capitals in five.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Ovechkin's big breakout finally comes, as he has two hat tricks in the series.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Could the Golden Knights beat an all-star team from every other expansion draft in NHL history?

The Vegas Golden Knights are the greatest expansion team we’ve ever seen. That point isn’t really up for debate anymore — by earning 109 points during the season and then sweeping their way to the second round of the playoffs, the Knights have already surpassed anything any other newcomer had ever accomplished. Forget the NHL — they’re the best expansion story in pro-sports history.

So today, as the Knights prepare to open their second-round series against the Sharks, let’s see how they stack up against the rest of the NHL’s expansion teams. As in, all of them.

We’re going to put this year’s Golden Knights up against a roster made up of the best picks of all the other NHL expansion teams of the modern era combined. That’s 25 teams, if you’re keeping track, assembled through a dozen different drafts dating back to 1967.

First, a few ground rules. We’ll count the four WHA teams from the convoluted 1979 process as part of our pool, but only the players who were part of the actual expansion draft, not the dispersal or reclamation portions — sorry, Wayne Gretzky and his personal-services contract can’t suit up for our team. We’re also looking at only the first year after the player was picked (since that’s all we have to go on for the Knights), so players like Bernie Parent and Billy Smith that blossomed into stars years later won’t help us. And we’re only counting players who were chosen in the expansion draft, not any first-year draft picks or trade acquisitions.

That last bit gives the Knights a slight advantage, since they had the benefit of adding players like Reilly Smith and Shea Theodore from trades, but we’ll allow it given they’re otherwise outnumbered 25-to-1 here. The Knights may be the most successful expansion team ever, but surely the best of the rest of the league’s history can unite to take them down.

Or can they? Let’s figure it out.


Starter: John Vanbiesbrouck (Panthers)

This one isn’t an especially tough call. Vanbiesbrouck had already won a Vezina in New York, but with only one spot to protect a goalie and a younger Mike Richter on the roster the Rangers couldn’t keep both. He was phenomenal in the Panthers’ first season, finishing as a finalist for both the Hart and Vezina while leading the team to within a point of the playoffs.

Backups: Glenn Hall (Blues) and Guy Hebert (Ducks)

Goaltender is historically the deepest position for expansion teams to choose from, so there’s no surprise that we have plenty of strong choices available. Heck, arguably the greatest goalie of all time was once exposed in the same expansion draft that saw Vanbiesbrouck and Hebert snapped up — but Dominik Hasek went unclaimed, one year before winning his first Vezina.

Still, we could have also gone with names like Terry Sawchuk, Doug Favell or Tomas Vokoun, among others. (But not Darren Puppa — he didn’t join the Lightning until their second season.)

The Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s season rivals Vanbiesbrouck’s as the best ever recorded by an expansion goaltender. But while the rest of the Knight’s goalies filled in admirably early in the year when Fleury was hurt, they don’t match up to Hall and Hebert.

Edge: The all-expansion squad wins on the basis of depth, although it’s closer than it should be.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Five reasons the Maple Leafs are definitely winning tonight (and also five reasons the Bruins definitely are)

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins face off tonight in the only Game 7 showdown of the opening round. It’s been a roller-coaster series, one that started with a pair of blowouts and then transformed into a nail-biter, with a key suspension, a surprise injury and more than a few subplots along the way.

Now it comes down to one game, and you’re looking for a prediction. Well, we’ve got you covered. Here goes: One of these teams will win.

Oh, you were looking for something more specific. But here’s the thing: In the salary cap era NHL, any one game is pretty much a coin flip. A slightly weighted coin, maybe, but still a coin flip. Either one of these teams could win, by a lot or a little, and it wouldn’t come as much of a shock.

But that’s not what fans of either team are looking for, so here’s a compromise. Today, we’ll look at five reasons why Bruins are definitely going to win tonight. And we’ll also offer up five more reasons why the Maple Leafs are an absolute lock. Pick the ones you like best, and then ignore the others. Or even better, wait until the game is over and then come back and only read the ones from the winning team.

Either way, we’re guaranteed to be right. And also wrong. But mostly right.

The Bruins will win because: They’ve been the better team in the series

We’ll start with the simplest factor: Through six games, the Bruins have been the better team.

Not from start to finish, and not necessarily for every game. But overall, it’s fairly clear that the Bruins are outplaying the Maple Leafs. Pick any measure, from goals scored to shots to possession to expected goals, and the Bruins have the edge. It’s not always a big edge, and the Maple Leafs have certainly had their moments. But on balance, the Bruins have been better.

That may not mean much in a seventh game. Hockey isn’t fair, and we’ve seen plenty of series where the best team didn’t win, often in cases where the margin was much bigger than in this one. But if you’re trying to figure out who’s going to win a single game, the easiest question to ask is “Who’s been better so far?”

In this series, the answer is Boston.

The Maple Leafs will win because: They’re getting stronger as they go

The Bruins have been the better team in the series, sure. But that includes the first two games, which Boston dominated. Since then, things have been far more even. Granted, those first two wins count just as much as any others, but the trend in the series is clear – Toronto’s been getting better, while Boston peaked early.

That’s not to say that the scales have tipped in Toronto’s favour, because they haven’t – even in losing the last two, the Bruins controlled play for long stretches, and there hasn’t been a single game in this series where you could say the Leafs were clearly the better team. But they’re headed in the right direction, and the third period of Monday’s Game 6 was probably their best of the series so far.

Momentum is overrated in pro sports, and it would take one early Bruins goal to put the Leafs right back on their heels. But if you’re trying to predict what will happen tonight, a pair of blowouts from almost two weeks ago doesn’t tell you all that much. You want to let some recency bias creep in, and the gap between these two teams has been getting smaller as we go. If the trend continues, tonight might be the night that the pendulum finally swings over to the Leafs’ side.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Podcast: Shipping down to Boston

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
In a new and jam-packed Vice Biscuits podcast:
- Lots of Leafs/Bruins talk
- Is Dave still driving the Capitals' bandwagon?
- We make our picks for the other second-round series
- The Flames hire Bill Peters
- The Wild fire Chuck Fletcher
- A look ahead to the draft lottery
- Plus DOPS, the Sedins, reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

The 2018 draft lottery power rankings

We’re headed towards the second round of the playoffs, where eight teams will continue their quest to play for the Stanley Cup in June. But for almost half the league, the season culminates on Saturday. That’s when we’ll get the annual draft lottery, in which all the league’s non-playoff teams gather to find out which ones will luck their way into top-three picks at this year’s entry draft.

After last year’s Nolan-vs.-Nico debate, we’re back to having a clear-cut first-overall pick. Rasmus Dahlin will be the first defenceman taken with the top pick since Aaron Ekblad in 2014, and he’s already being hyped as the sort of prospect who could turn a struggling franchise around. That’s good news, because there are plenty of struggling franchises to be found. Fifteen teams are entered in this year’s lottery, and all of them will be hoping their logo comes up in the top spot. Well, all of them except one. We’ll get to that.

You can find the full set of weighted odds here. This is the third year under the new system, in which the top three spots are up for grabs and teams can move all the way up if the ping pong balls bounce their way.

The first year of the system saw a predictable outcome, when last-place Toronto kept the top spot. Last year was big for the long shots, with the worst four teams all falling out of the top three. What will this year bring? We don’t know yet, but we’ll take our annual look at the possibilities from a few different angles.

The “Which Team Needs It Most?” Ranking

We’ll start with the obvious category. Every team that missed the playoffs would love to add Dahlin — heck, every team in the league would. But some teams certainly need him more than others.

Not ranked: Florida Panthers: No doubt they’d love to add a talent like Dahlin. But they’re already a good young team built around a No. 1–overall pick on the blueline.

5. Arizona Coyotes: After suffering through yet another miserable year, they head into the last year of Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s deal wondering what the future might look like without him. The answer is probably “not good,” but adding another elite offensive defenceman would help.

4. Vancouver Canucks: Between Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, the future looks reasonably bright up front, and Thatcher Demko appears to be the goalie of the future. But with Olli Juolevi off to a somewhat-underwhelming start, the defence could use a future stud. (Also, can we talk about how weird it is that the Canucks have been around for nearly 50 years and have never really had an elite defenceman?)

3. Buffalo Sabres: Their blue line is terrible, and there isn’t much in the way of elite help coming from their prospect pipeline beyond maybe Brendan Guhle. Plus, their fans are completely miserable and could desperately use some good news.

2. Ottawa Senators: Despite half-hearted denials, the Erik Karlsson situation seems set to drag on into the off-season. Adding an elite Swedish blueliner might help nudge Karlsson towards sticking around. And even if it didn’t, there’s no better way to ease the pain of losing today’s Karlsson than by adding the next version.

1. Edmonton Oilers: Yes, I know, the thought of the Oilers winning yet another lottery is a touchy one, and we’ll get to that. But they’ve been chasing a top blueline presence for years, and adding Dahlin to the Connor McDavid show for the next decade would just about guarantee a Stanley Cup or two. Nobody could screw that up. [Thinks for a minute.] Almost nobody could screw that up.

The “Who Actually Deserves It?” Rankings

The short answer: Nobody, since we’re relying on a system of ping pong balls and random chance that’s designed to reward failure. Here’s the longer answer.

Not ranked: Chicago Blackhawks: Yes, yes, your Stanley Cup mini-dynasty finally missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Hearts are breaking for you all around the league.

5. Ottawa Senators: The team itself probably doesn’t deserve it, given the mess they’ve made of just about everything over the course of the season. But the fan base? Yeah, they could probably use a break these days.

4. New York Islanders: They make the list for pretty much the same reasons as the Senators. But we’ll move them one spot higher, since a lottery win will help ease the pain when John Tavares signs with the Rangers.

3. Arizona Coyotes: They haven’t had much lottery luck, missing out on McDavid and local boy Auston Matthews among others. They were this year’s worst team early on, with a record-setting start that had them out of contention by November, and you could have forgiven them for going in the tank to protect their top odds. Instead, they won their way up a few spots in the standings. It would be nice to see that rewarded.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, April 23, 2018

Weekend wrap: The Jets make history

Yeah, I’d say that felt like it was worth waiting three decades or so for.

The Jets took care of business on Friday night, eliminating the Wild in five games to advance to the second round. While the magnitude of the moment made for a dramatic finish, the game itself didn’t provide much in the way of suspense. The Jets rolled over the Wild, scoring 31 seconds in and leading 4–0 before the game was 12 minutes old. That was more than enough, as Connor Hellebuyck recorded his second straight shutout to pad his all-time Jets lead.

It was the first time Winnipeg fans had seen their team win a playoff series since 1987, when the old Jets beat the Flames in the opening round. That iteration of the team didn’t win another series in its remaining nine years before heading to Phoenix, and 15 years without a team and seven more after luring the Thrashers north had added up to a grand total of zero playoff games won until this year. They took care of the first win in Game 1; now they’ve checked off a series to go with it.

Next up, the team takes aim at another first: The two versions of the Winnipeg Jets have never won a game in the second round of the NHL playoffs. Both previous trips to round two ended in four-game sweeps at the hands of the Wayne Gretzky-era Oilers dynasty.

This year’s matchup won’t be quite as foreboding, although it’s not all that far off. The Predators are the Presidents’ Trophy champions, and will have home ice. Their lineup features the likely Vezina winner, a Norris finalist, and a forward in Filip Forsberg who’s doing something ridiculous in just about every game. But while the Jets were dominating the Wild, the Predators looked at least a little bit vulnerable against the underdog Avalanche and took on an extra game’s worth of wear and tear in the process, so this is a series that Winnipeg can win.

Either way, it should be a must-see matchup, quite possibly the very best of the entire post-season. There’s a strong case to be made that these are the two top teams in the league, and their regular-season meetings were fantastic. It might even be tempting to suggest that this series will be for the Stanley Cup, although that implies that the winner will emerge with anything left for the Sharks or Knights in the conference final. As for who we’re picking, well, we’ll get to that in the power rankings.

But first, one other thing a Winnipeg Jets team has never accomplished: Being the last Canadian team standing in the NHL playoffs. They’ll have to wait at least a few more hours to claim that honour, after the Maple Leafs went into Boston and escaped with a Game 5 win to keep their series alive.

That one saw the Leafs build a 4–1 lead midway through the second period, then hang on as a desperate Bruins team dominated the second half. Boston rained 45 shots on Frederik Andersen, including 20 in the third period, and the Leafs spent much of the game in the penalty box. By late in the third, the Bruins had cut the lead to 4–3, and, yes, everyone was thinking it. But this time Toronto held on, if only barely.

Game 6 goes tonight in Toronto, with a potential Game 7 looming back in Boston on Wednesday. It still feels like the Maple Leafs haven’t put a full game together in the series, with inconsistent play from Andersen and the top forwards. But Saturday at least offered some signs of encouragement, with Auston Matthews looking dangerous in the early going and the return of Nazem Kadri giving the top six a boost.

The end result wasn’t pretty, and probably had more than a few Toronto fans suffering through some traumatic memories of 2013. The Leafs still have a long way to go if they’re going to join the Jets in round two. But for now at least, the country still has two teams to root for, and we can save the annual “Canada’s Team” debate for at least one more day.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.

5. Boston Bruins: This is a bit risky, as they’re the only team in our top five that hasn’t already punched a ticket to round two. The safer play would be to swap in the Knights here, but we’re sticking with Boston. Gutsy call, or transparent attempt at the reverse-jinx? You decide.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning: You have to figure they’ll be hoping that the Leafs and Bruins go the full seven and inflict as much damage on each other as possible before the winner crawls their way to Tampa.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Saturday Storylines: Kadri returns

Welcome to the second Saturday of the NHL post-season. We’ve got three games on tap today, down from the originally scheduled four – thanks, Golden Knights – and we’ll start with the lone evening game.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Bruins

“If you win, you get to play again. If you don’t win, you don’t get to play again.”

That was Mike Babcock’s post-game message on Thursday night. It’s not fancy, and probably won’t make it into too many books of inspiring sports quotes. But the Maple Leafs can’t afford fancy right now, so simple will have to do.

Before the puck dropped, Game 4 in Toronto felt like a potential series turning point. With Patrice Bergeron out of the lineup, the Maple Leafs’ task was straightforward: win the game, tie the series, and head back to Boston with the momentum. At the very least, you’d expect them to come out flying in a leave-it-all-on-the-ice effort to take advantage of a golden opportunity. Instead they surrendered a goal on the game’s first shift, and failed to find much offence on the way to a 3-1 loss. They played well at times, but couldn’t figure out a way to beat Tuukka Rask while the Bruins buried their chances.

Now the series heads back to Boston, where the Bruins dominated the first two games, and you could be forgiven for assuming it’s all but over. We don’t know yet if Bergeron will be back, although the early indication was that his injury wasn’t a long-term situation. But even if the Bruins’ star sits out again, the advantages all seem to be leaning Boston’s way. They’re getting offence from their other best players, such as Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, while key Maple Leafs, such as Auston Matthews and William Nylander, have been largely quiet. Rask is outplaying Frederik Andersen. And home ice means the Bruins will once again control the matchup battle, one they won handily in the first two games.

It all adds up to a bleak outlook for a Maple Leafs team that went into the season with plenty of optimism, and largely lived up to the hype with a franchise-record 105 points. But an early exit against the Bruins would represent a step back from last season, as well as a tough message about how far this team still has to go. And it will make the team’s stay-the-course rebuild philosophy just a little bit tougher to sell in a town that’s been uncharacteristically patient up until now.

That’s all getting ahead of ourselves – the Maple Leafs could win tonight to extend the series, then head home to try to force a seventh game. But they’ll need to be better across the board to make it happen. Because if it doesn’t, as a wise man once said, they don’t get to play again.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, April 20, 2018

Grab bag: Gone golfing

In this week's Friday Grab Bag:
- A detailed breakdown of an overtime celebration pile
- The NHL playoffs wind up on The Gold Channel
- An obscure player whose two brothers both made the HHOF
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube trip back to one of the few happy playoff memories for Capitals fans

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Reddit AMA

I'll be hosting a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) today at noon eastern. Here's the link.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Podcast: Suspended disbelief

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I go through all the first-round series so far
- Who got suspended, who didn't, and which calls the league got right
- I rant about a very stupid rule
- Ken Hitchcock is out in Dallas
- Eugene Melnyk and the Senators attack the fake news media, the way honest people do
- Reader questions and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

The 2018 playoff pressure index

It’s playoff time, which means 16 teams are facing more pressure than they had at any other point so far this year. Once you get to the playoffs, one game – even one play – can make or break your season. Fans from around the league are watching your every move, breaking down and debating each decision that got you here. And if it goes wrong, it can all be over in a few days. That’s pressure.

But not all pressure is created equal. There’s “gosh it sure would be great if we won” pressure. And then there’s “half of us are getting fired if we lose, and the rest of us will be chased out of town with pitchforks” pressure. That’s a pretty wide spectrum, and teams can fall anywhere in between.

So today, let’s run through this year’s 16 playoff teams and figure out who wants to win, and who needs to win. We’ll count them down from the least pressure to the most, starting with the teams that would never admit to being just happy to be here, but probably could be.

16: Colorado Avalanche

It feels like we’re not making a big enough deal out of the Avalanche being in the playoffs. Think about how awful this year’s Sabres were, and how remote their prospects for a quick turnaround feel right now. Now remember that the 2017-18 Sabres were 14 points better than the 2016-17 Avalanche. That’s how hopeless last season felt in Colorado. And the only major roster move that they made since was one that, at least in the short term, was supposed to make them worse.

And yet here they are. Depending on your perspective, that’s either an inspiring story of triumphing over expectations, or a reminder of how random this league often feels in the age of parity. Either way, the Avalanche should probably be considered the most amazing story of the year. They’re not, but only because of an even more surprising team we’ll get to in a bit.

The story will still be amazing even if the Avalanche head home early. They’re missing some key players and nobody expects them to beat the Predators, so even winning a game or two is gravy. They want to win, no doubt, but they don’t have to. Given where they were coming from, the season is already a massive success by any realistic measure. That’s not a bad place for a franchise to be, but it doesn’t add up to a lot of pressure.

15: New Jersey Devils

You could take an awful lot of what we just said about the Avalanche and apply it to the Devils. Nobody expected them to be here, nobody expects them to win now that they’re here, and the season is a giant step forward no matter what happens now. The Avalanche turnaround is the more surprising one, which is why they get the No. 16 slot on our list, but otherwise it’s a similar story.

14. Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers are another underdog who slipped into the playoffs late in the season, and even making it this far in a season that featured a 10-game losing streak is pretty impressive. They’re also a team on the way up, so a first-round exit against the defending champs wouldn’t be a disaster. But we’ll nudge them up a few spots, given that they’ve drawn a matchup with a key rival. Everyone wants to be the one to end the Penguins’ reign, but Philadelphia would be insufferable about it.

13: Los Angeles Kings

The Kings are another wild-card team, but don’t carry the same sort of pressure-free status as the Devils and Avalanche. That’s because their return to the post-season wasn’t the same kind of longshot, and they went into their first-round matchup with at least a decent chance of pulling off an upset.

That isn’t going all that well so far, and wasting a fantastic performance by Jonathan Quick will sting, especially if they head home in a sweep. But with two relatively recent Cup wins to fall back on, we can’t move the Kings much further up the list.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, April 16, 2018

Weekend wrap: Leafs blown away

The Maple Leafs went into game two against the Bruins on Saturday night looking to remind us that they belonged in the series. They left Boston looking like a team that won’t be back.

The Bruins did away with any suspense early in this one, jumping out to a 3–0 lead and chasing Frederik Andersen midway through the first period. They were up by four by the intermission, then cruised the rest of the way for a 7–3 win. Now the series heads back to Toronto for tonight’s Game 3, with the Bruins up 2-0 and looking to all but end it.

The big story so far has been the Bruins’ top line. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have dominated the series, racking up a combined five goals and 20 points while largely shutting down whoever the Maple Leafs threw at them. Pastrnak’s six-point Saturday night was the sort of breakout game that boosts a player into the top tier of the league’s young stars. Toronto has no answer for the trio, and Mike Babcock’s attempts to match lines on the road didn’t yield much beyond a pair of too-many-men penalties.

If you’re a Maple Leafs fan looking for good news, well, there isn’t a whole lot to be found. You could make the case that the team actually looked better on Saturday than they had in the opener, when they spent long stretches trapped in their own zone; the play wasn’t quite as tilted in Game 2, even if the scoreboard didn’t reflect it. That’s true enough, but hardly comforting – if you can up your game and still get your doors blown off with relative ease, you’re probably not long for a series.

So for now, the positive view is basically this: The series isn’t over, at least not yet, and we shouldn’t be closing the book on the Maple Leafs season until we’ve at least seen what they can do against the Bruins with home-ice advantage and the last line change.

And as many Leafs fans have pointed out, there’s at least some precedent for hope here. The team’s longest playoff run of the last half-century started off under similar circumstances, with the 1993 team getting blown out two straight in Detroit before returning home with a pair of close wins to get back in it. That team won the series in seven and played for another month, and to this day ranks as the most beloved Leafs team of the post-expansion era.

But while we’re the last to deny anyone a good dose of 1993 nostalgia, the Leafs’ current situation feels even more desperate than it did back then. That Leafs team had an edge in goaltending, while the current version is facing a former Vezina winner in Tuukka Rask. And those old Leafs weren’t missing one of their most important players to suspension, while Nazem Kadri will sit out both of the games in Toronto.

So yes, the odds are steep. They’re not quite zero yet, so we’ll hold off on the autopsy for now. But tonight is a must-win for the Maple Leafs, and if they get blown out again, expect things to get ugly in Toronto. We’ve got a gap in the schedule coming up, with Game 4 not going until Thursday, and an extra day of mulling over a 3–0 series deficit won’t play well in a town where negativity used to be the default setting. It’s been almost two years since this team has faced any significant criticism, so there’s plenty of ammo stored up. How high can the panic level get if it becomes clear that one of the best teams in the franchise’s modern history still isn’t anywhere near good enough?

From a Toronto perspective, it would be better not to find out. Other fan bases may already be reaching for the popcorn. Either way, a win in Game 3 switches up the narrative, and might set us up for the long series most of us were expecting. But that won’t happen unless the Maple Leafs can elevate their game enough to look like they belong on the same ice as the Bruins. As the first two games have shown us, they’ve got a long way to go.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a Stanley Cup.

5. Vegas Golden Knights: They just keep finding a way, and became the first team to reach the three-win mark last night.

4. Winnipeg Jets: So was last night a wobble, or something else? More on them down below.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Saturday Storylines: Don't panic (yet)

Welcome back to the Saturday Storylines, and welcome to the post-season. We’re back for another week or two, since we’ll have enough on the plate each Saturday to keep the storylines coming through the opening round. We’ve got four Game 2s today, three of which feature the home team trying to take a 2-0 series lead. We’ll start our tour around the league in Boston.

HNIC Game of the Night: Maple Leafs at Bruins

Well, here’s the good news for the Maple Leafs: Tonight will probably go better than Thursday did.

Here’s the bad news: It had better.

Game 1 didn’t bring much in the way of positives for Toronto fans hoping to see their team win its first round since 2004. On paper, the matchup with Boston looked tough but winnable. On the ice, the Bruins looked like the better team for just about the entire night. They dominated possession, got the better of the matchups, and had the more effective special teams. The Bruins also got better goaltending, were more disciplined, and even won the coaching battle, with the Leafs failing to challenge what sure looked like an offside on the Bruins’ first goal.

Other than all that, it went fine for Toronto.

In fairness, the 5-1 final score may have been slightly more lopsided than the Leafs deserved – the game was tied until late in the second, and the Leafs were still vaguely in it until Nazem Kadri‘s third-period major for boarding Tommy Wingels. As far as opening-game disasters go, this wasn’t the Flyers losing 7-0 to the Penguins. Not quite.

But however you want to judge it, the loss still leaves Toronto needing a win to avoid heading home down 2-0 in the series. Tonight won’t quite be a must-win, but beating this Bruins team four out of five would be a daunting task, so the pressure is on. At the very least, they’ll want to show that they can look like they belong in the series.

They’ll have to do it without Kadri, who’ll sit out three games for his reckless hit. That’s a major blow to the Leafs’ chances, especially after many of the team’s top forwards had quiet nights on Thursday. The Bruins have a way of doing that to stars, but the Maple Leafs will need to see a lot more from Auston Matthews, William Nylander and James van Riemsdyk, among others, if they’re going to even things up. And with Kadri’s absence highlighting the team’s shaky depth down the middle, they’ll need to finally get something from trade deadline pickup Thomas Plekanec, assuming he even stays in the lineup.

A Leafs win sends us back to Toronto all square, and with a whole new set of narratives. A loss means we can expect to hear plenty of that old cliché about how you’re never really in trouble until you’ve lost at home, and there’s some truth to that. But another effort like the one we saw on Thursday will plant some serious doubt that the series will even still be going on by the time a scheduled Game 5 arrives this time next Saturday.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, April 13, 2018

Grab bag: What happens in Vegas

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The Golden Knights made their playoff debut with a tacky pregame ceremony, and I have some thoughts
- Does your team need better player, or should they just try harder?
- An obscure player from the last Jets team to win a round
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring Gary Bettman as an ewok
- And a YouTube reminder that mid-90s Fox intros were really weird...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The 2018 playoff bandwagon ranking

This year’s NHL playoffs feature the usual standard field of 16 teams. But thanks to expansion, we’ve also got an all-time high of 15 non-playoff teams, meaning we’ve never headed into a post-season with so many fans without a team to root for.

That’s where the bandwagon comes in. It’s a controversial subject, and many fans swear that your team is your team and you can never jump ship under any circumstances. That’s a fair stance, and if you want to spend the next few months clinging to your Calgary Flames throw pillow and hissing at the television through tears, I get it.

But not everyone feels that way, and some fans like to adopt a temporary team for the playoffs. If that’s you, then this guide will help you make the best choice. We’re looking for teams that are reasonably likeable, fun to watch, and carry some decent storylines into the post-season. We’d also prefer a team that had at least a plausible chance of winning, since hopping on a bandwagon just in time to get swept in the first round isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

With that in mind, let’s count down this year’s 16 playoff teams as we search for the optimal bandwagon destination for fans in search of a short-term backup plan.

No. 16: Minnesota Wild

Why you should get on board: They’ve got a lovable coach in Bruce Boudreau, and one of the great comeback stories of the year in Eric Staal. And with Ryan Suter out with a broken leg, it would be a nice case of overcoming adversity if they made any kind of a run.

Why you shouldn’t: I mean… I like the Wild. They’re a decent-enough team. But the big problem with this year’s edition is that they land right in that sweet spot where they’re not good enough to feel like they have any real chance at a Cup, but not quite bad enough to be a gutsy underdog pick. And given what their path out of the conference might look like, they’d almost always be lining up against a team that was way more likeable.

Bottom line: Sorry, Minnesota, but somebody has to be last. If it’s any consolation, think how much you’ll enjoy sending me links to this post every hour when the Wild are getting ready for the Cup final.

No. 15: Los Angeles Kings

Why you should get on board: Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are great. They’ve had a nice rebound under new management after a few iffy years. And of all the wild cards, they seem like the one most likely to pull off the upset and send a No. 1 seed home.

Why you shouldn’t: That No. 1 seed is the expansion Golden Knights. Do you really want to root for a team that’s already won two Cups as it tries to snuff out the best NHL story in years? Somebody has to be the town dog-catcher, but nobody should be cheering him on when he’s hunting down adorable puppies.

Bottom line: Also, Dustin Brown. So that’s a no.

No. 14: Pittsburgh Penguins

Why you should get on board: The champs are chasing a three-peat, which is kind of ridiculous. This is the salary-cap era, when parity reigns and everything feels dangerously close to flipping coins. But here’s Sidney Crosby and friends trying to pull off something that Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky couldn’t do back when dynasties were still a thing. That’s pretty cool.

Also, they have Phil Kessel, and if you don’t love Phil Kessel by now then you don’t have a soul.

Why you shouldn’t: They’re still the two-time defending champs, so you’re not just bandwagon-hopping — you’re front-running.

Bottom line: We do this list every year, and we almost always put the recent champs at the bottom of the list. The sheer novelty of the Pens’ quest for history keeps them out of that spot this time around. But only barely.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Podcast: Playoff preview

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- We make our picks for all eight first-round matchups
- Dave is once again wrong about a replay review
- In a results-based league where winning is everything, none of the bad teams except the Rangers fired anyone
- Ryan O'Reilly's interesting exit interview
- The NHL randomly invents a tie-breaker rule
- I need help with my Hart ballot
- And lots more, as we pack a ton of stuff into an hour

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

First round playoff preview

Welcome to the very best time of year to be a hockey fan. The regular season has its moments and the Stanley Cup Final is what it's all about. But the first round of the playoffs is pure adrenaline, hooked directly into a hockey fan's veins. Sixteen teams enter, and we get two weeks of mayhem until eight are left.

But which eight? Let's see if we can figure it out with a look at all of the first-round matchups.

Central Division

#1 Nashville Predators vs. #WC Colorado Avalanche

In this corner: The Predators (53-18-11, 117 points, +57*), coming off the first Presidents' Trophy in team history. (*Unlike the NHL, our goals differential totals don't count shootout wins and losses since, you know, those aren't actually goals.)

And in this corner: The Avalanche (43-30-9, 95 points, +19), who made the playoffs in their final game just one year after one of the worst seasons of the cap era.

Head-to-head: The Predators won all four meetings.

Injury report: The Avalanche are missing starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov and defenseman Erik Johnson, both of whom are out long term and won't play in the series. The Predators are relatively healthy, which at this time of year means half the roster is probably hurt but they haven't told us about it.

Dominant narrative: David vs. Goliath. The Avalanche have been a great story, and they've spent the season proving doubters wrong. But when you battle all year to get the No. 1 seed, this is the sort of matchup you're hoping to get. If the Predators are the team we think they are, they should roll through this series easily, earning some rest before a much tougher test arrives in the second round.

The big question: Are the Avalanche just happy to be here? You could hardly blame them if they were; they could lose this series in four straight and the season would still be a resounding success.

One player to watch: Nathan MacKinnon. The Avalanche forward and former first overall pick finally had the breakout season that puts him among the league's elite stars, and he may win the Hart Trophy because of it. He's the kind of difference-maker who can take over a game, and the Avs may need him to do just that to have a shot at the upset here.

Key number: 296 – Powerplay opportunities drawn by the Avalanche on the season, the most in the league by a good margin (the next best team, Tampa Bay, had 276). Their powerplay was OK, but the sheer volume left them third in the league in powerplay goals scored. But will that continue in the postseason, when NHL referees are known for putting away their whistles?

Prediction: Predators in four.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Avs hang tough and make it closer than we'd think, with two of the games going into overtime.

#2 Winnipeg Jets vs. #3 Minnesota Wild

In this corner: The Jets (52-20-10, 114 points, +57), coming off the best season in both franchise and Winnipeg history.

And in this corner: The Wild (45-26-11, 101 points, +21), who continued Bruce Boudreau's streak of hitting at least 100 points in every full season he's coached.

Head-to-head: The Jets won three of the four matchups, including a 7-2 blowout back in November.

Injury report: The big name here is Minnesota's Ryan Suter, who's out for the year with a broken leg. The Jets' blueline is banged up, too, with Jacob Trouba and Toby Enstrom both missing time at the end of the season.

Dominant narrative: The Jets finally make The Leap. With all due respect to the Wild, they feel like supporting characters in this one. The Jets have been quietly hoarding young talent for years, so much so that experts were anointing them as future Cup champions years ago. But until this year, the future never arrived, and the team has still yet to win so much as a playoff game since returning to Winnipeg seven years ago. That will presumably change this year; now we see just how far they can go.

The big question: Are we overlooking the Wild? Well… yeah. We just did. And you can't really blame us, since everyone has been looking ahead to a second-round showdown between the Jets and Predators for most of the season's second half. But those are the sort of dream matchups that have a way of getting blown up before they happen, and the Wild are the sort of team that could do the detonating.

One player to watch: Patrik Laine. The Jets' young star is the heir apparent to Alexander Ovechkin as the league's most exciting sniper, racking up 80 goals over the last two seasons despite not turning 20 until next week. Also, it's fun to imagine just how terrible his playoff bread could get.

Key number: 40 – Goals scored by 33-year-old Wild center Eric Staal, who put together one of the best and most surprising seasons of the year. When you're being mentioned alongside Gordie Howe, that's pretty good. And remember, Staal knows a thing or two about surprising Stanley Cup runs.

Prediction: Jets in five.

Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: The Wild win Game 1 in overtime, giving everyone in Winnipeg just a little bit of doubt to chew on before the Jets find their footing.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Monday, April 9, 2018

Weekend wrap: On to the playoffs

The weekend’s biggest game came on Saturday night in Colorado, with the Avalanche and Blues facing off in what was essentially a single-game playoff for the West’s final wild card. The Avalanche took that one by a 5–2 final, earning a playoff spot and completing one of the most stunning season-to-season turnarounds in modern history. They’ll face the Predators in the opening round.

Saturday’s turning point came in the second period, with the Avalanche taking a 2–0 lead on a goal that the Blues challenged for offside. The play was close, with Blues fans insisting it was indeed offside, but the goal stood. That’s led to some silly conspiracy talk, which rings a little hollow when you remember that the Blues benefitted from a blown offside review to beat these same Avalanche earlier in the season. To their credit, St. Louis fought back to close the gap to 2–1, but Nathan MacKinnon‘s goal was the dagger, and Gabriel Landeskog‘s empty-netter set off an epic celebration.

The other open playoff race didn’t come with the same level of drama, as the Flyers put an early end to any suspense with a Saturday-afternoon win over the listless Rangers to eliminate the Panthers. That left Florida with a pair of meaningless games to play out, including last night’s contest against the Bruins. That one mattered to Boston, with first place in the Atlantic on the line. But the Bruins came out flat and didn’t find their legs until the third period, and by then they’d left themselves too much ground to over. The Panthers weathered the loss of goaltender James Reimer and held on for a 4–2 win.

That leaves the Lightning as the Atlantic’s top seed and sets up a first-round meeting with the Devils. The Bruins finish second and will get the Maple Leafs, a matchup that at least on paper looks a lot tougher.

The weekend’s other big NHL news was the final game for the Sedins. The twins took their final bow after Saturday’s shootout loss in Edmonton, one that saw them receive a heartfelt goodbye from Oiler fans and players alike while their children watched on from the bench.

Not a bad way to go out. For the rest of us, it’s two days off and then on to the first round.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6, +22 true goals differential*): With a winnable first-round matchup locked in against the Flyers, we’ll bump the defending champs back into the top five to close out the season. Don’t sleep on the Capitals, though.

4. Boston Bruins (50-20-12, +56): The team honoured anthem singer Rene Rancourt before last night’s game. He’s already announced that he’ll be retiring after their playoff run.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Saturday storylines: The Sedins say goodbye

Welcome to what was supposed to be the final night of the NHL regular season. Tomorrow’s makeup game between the Panthers and Bruins threw a wrench in things, but never mind that — the league is hitting us with everything they have tonight, with the maximum 15 games on the schedule and everyone other than the Penguins in action.

HNIC Game of the Night: Canucks at Oilers

As far as the standings go, this one barely matters. The only meaningful stakes are a few percentage points worth of lottery odds, and maybe Connor McDavid‘s final push for Hart Trophy votes.

But some things are more important than wins or losses or individual honours. And to fans across the country looking at the big picture, tonight represents something much more: Their last chance to see the Sedin twins in action.

It’s been a whirlwind week since the Sedins dropped the Monday bombshell that they wouldn’t be returning for an 18th season. The announcement led to an emotional Tuesday night against the Golden Knights, one that saw each twin take a rare turn in the shootout in front of the Vancouver crowd. That was followed by Thursday’s final home game, one that ended just about perfectly.

Through it all, tributes have poured in from around the hockey world, with fans, media, teammates, opponents and community leaders lining up to sing the twins’ praises. In a league where it’s relatively rare to see players make it through long careers without being turned into villains by at least some segment of the fan base, the Sedins are going out with near-universal respect and admiration.

The only negative has been the schedule, which inconveniently serves up a road game for the Canucks’ season finale. But if the Sedins’ final bow couldn’t be in Vancouver, Edmonton isn’t a bad second choice. There’s even a little symmetry in play – longtime Oiler Ryan Smyth had his final game against the Canucks four years ago, one that even saw his opponents return to the ice to show their respect.

We can expect something similar from the Oilers and their fans tonight, much like the moment that Jarome Iginla and the Flames once provided for another beloved Canuck. And if history is any guide, the Sedins will take it all in stride, without much in the way of fanfare or drama.

Vancouver fans, maybe not so much. It would be hard to blame them, and you can bet that more than a few fans of other teams will be cheering along with them.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, April 6, 2018

Grab bag: Hart problems

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The Hart Trophy debate gets complicated
- The NHL makes small progress in the replay review mess
- An obscure player from one of my favorite 1980s teams
- The week's three comedy stars make me worry for Winnipeg
- And a look back at the selection of the Sedins at the 1999 draft

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Podcast: The firing squad

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave debuts his creepy new podcast voice but I promise it only lasts the first minute or so
- Another week, another goaltender interference controversy, and I've pretty much had it with all the feigned confusion
- We make our picks for which coaches and GMs are getting fired
- The playoff races come down to the wire, and we try to figure out the Western tie-breakers
- Erik Karlsson picked up a puck. What can it all mean?
- Reader questions, including a pretty brutal dig at the Oilers
- And most importantly: 100% zero Hart Trophy talk, guaranteed

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The ten types of games you meet in the season's final week (and how to watch them)

We’re into the final week of the NHL season, with just six days left on the schedule. At this point, just about every night of action should feature at least a few games worth watching.

But which ones? In the final week, it’s no longer as simple as just looking for matchups between top teams or division rivals. That strategy works fine in December, but this is April. When there’s this little time left on the schedule, different kinds of games require different strategies to ensure an optimal viewing experience.

So today, let’s sort through the various types of games you can encounter in the final week of an NHL regular season, some possible examples from the next few days, and the best way that you as a fan can approach them.

No. 1: The de facto playoff game

The matchup: It’s not a playoff game per se, since, you know, it’s not the playoffs yet. But the way things are playing out, it’s probably not going to be the playoffs at all for one of these teams unless they can pick up a win.

Possible examples: Anything involving the Panthers or any of the Western wild-card teams. But the big one comes on Saturday, when the Blues face the Avalanche in a game that could be for the conference’s final playoff spot.

How to watch it: If you’re a fan of the team that needs the win, consider this practice for the real thing. All post-season superstitions go into full effect. Screaming profanities at officials is mandatory. Screaming at broadcasters, opposing fans and anthem singers is optional but encouraged. Screaming at children and pets is probably overdoing it but nobody’s judging you.

Whichever way you decide to approach it, be ready, because you are in full playoff mode for the next few hours. By halfway through the game, you’ll remember that playoff mode feels awful.

(There’s also the evil cousin of this game: the de facto playoff game between two teams that your favourite team is chasing in the standings. Fun fact: Literally every one of these ever played has mysteriously gone to overtime and become a three-point game.)

No. 2: The possible first-round preview

The matchup: These two teams have a good chance of meeting in the first round. In the old days, everyone knew what this meant: Sound the gong, because it was set-the-tone time. But today’s NHL is a kinder and gentler place, and we typically don’t see much of that nonsense anymore. Instead, these games typically start off feeling like any other. But eventually, depending on how things go, we can still get a hint of bad blood, and maybe even a little bit of message sending.

Possible examples: Penguins at Blue Jackets on Thursday. Bruins at Panthers on Thursday. Devils at Capitals on Saturday.

How to watch it: Talk yourself into disliking the other team, even if you have to really reach to do it. Work your way up to something approaching hatred. Finish off with a degree of loathing you never though humanly possible, and then spend the next few days plotting all the ways you can’t wait to you see your team smite their enemies. Try to look surprised when the matchup falls through on the season’s final weekend and your team ends up playing someone else instead.

No. 3: The possible Stanley Cup final preview

The matchup: This is the offshoot of the first-round preview, because it features two very good teams in different conferences. These matchups are actually relatively rare these days, thanks to a schedule that emphasizes divisional matchups down the stretch. But every now and then we luck into one or two, and when we do it’s hard not to have your mind wander ahead to June.

Possible examples: Predators at Capitals on Thursday. Blue Jackets at Predators on Saturday if we’re feeling generous. Predators at Panthers tonight if we’re feeling really generous, which let’s face it, we are not.

How to watch it: Those are the only inter-conference games between playoff teams left on the schedule, but at least they feature a genuine contender in the Predators. So watch, enjoy, project ahead to that Cup-final matchup, and then try not to think about how this category will probably disappear entirely once we’re back to an even number of teams again after Seattle arrives.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, April 2, 2018

Weekend wrap: The final countdown

With one week to go in the season, we can skip the dramatic preamble and cut right to the chase. Here’s where we’re at.

In the East, the Panthers are on life support, as a late-season slump threatens to derail their second-half comeback. They’ve dropped three straight, including Saturday’s loss in Boston. That one was especially demoralizing. Not only did they come away empty in a game where they needed to pick up some points, but the Bruins loom as their most likely first-round opponent if they do make it in, and the Panthers didn’t look like they could keep up. The news got even worse last night, as the Devils earned a comeback win in Montreal by a 2-1 final. The Panthers now trail New Jersey by seven points and the Flyers by eight for an Eastern wild card spot.

The only real good news for the Panthers is they still hold two games in hand over both New Jersey and Philadelphia. That’s a mixed blessing this late in the year, since it means five games crammed into seven nights for a team that already looks like it’s running out of steam. And some of those games will be tough ones, with two more against the Bruins and one against the Predators. It’s possible that one or both of those teams could be resting guys this week, and the other two games against the Sabres and Hurricanes are winnable. But right now, the situation in Florida is bleak, and even a 5-0-0 finish might not be enough.

Things are looking a lot more interesting out West, where we’ve got four teams still in it and three spots up for grabs. The biggest game of the weekend was Sunday’s matchup between Colorado and Anaheim, and it featured an early Avalanche lead, a third-period Ducks comeback, and an Ondrej Kase overtime winner. The win moved the Ducks to third in the Pacific, bumping the Kings back down to a wild card spot and officially eliminating the Stars. The Avalanche currently hold the other wild card, with the Blues lurking a point behind but holding a game in hand on all three teams.

There are lots of ways this could all play out over the next week, but it may come down to Saturday’s showdown between the Blues and Avalanche in Colorado. Despite holding a spot right now, the Avs may be facing the longest odds after learning that they’ll finish the season without Semyon Varlamov or Erik Johnson. They’re not the only team hurting, as the Ducks lost John Gibson and Cam Fowler last night and we’re not sure yet if either injury is serious.

Further up the standings, we still need to sort out the battle between the Bruins and Lightning for top seed in the Atlantic (and the Eastern Conference). The Capitals have clinched the Metro’s top spot after Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh, but the rest of the division’s seedings are up for grabs. The Jets won’t catch Nashville for first place in the Central, but they’re making the Predators work for it. And the Knights are home and cooled out in the Pacific, but still have something to play for thanks to an outside shot at the Presidents’ Trophy.

Of course, that only covers the races involving teams. At an individual level, there’s still plenty left to sort out, as we’ll see in the next section.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Vegas Golden Knights (50-22-7, plus-50 true goals differential*): The team raised a banner on Saturday honouring the 58 victims of the October shooting.

4. Winnipeg Jets (48-20-10, plus-51): They went into Toronto to preview a potential dream Cup final, and looked like the better team from start to finish.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet