Friday, April 19, 2019

Puck Soup: Mistakes were made

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg, Ryan and I look back on our broken brackets and try to figure out what went wrong
- What happened to the Lightning, and where do they go from here?
- The Islanders' sweep the Pens, the Flames and Sharks on the ropes, and all the other series
- Thoughts on the Kadri suspension and Ovechkin vs. Svechnikov
- Two new coaches get big deals, but what about Buffalo?
- I give the guys a quiz on a subject I'm an expert on: Playoff misery
- I also get to do an ad read, but my transitions may need work

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.




Thursday, April 18, 2019

Grab Bag: Penguins/Lightning excuses

In a special Thursday edition of the Grab Bag:
- Penguins and Lightning excuses
- Breaking down a week of first-round outrage
- An obscure player who was at least consistent
- The week's three comedy stars
- And our old friend Alan Thicke helps us remember when the Lightning were just starting out...

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A brief history of really good teams that didn’t win a playoff game

What​ the hell is​ happening​ to​ the​ Lightning?

That’s​ the​ big question​ in the NHL​ these days, and​ honestly,​ I have no​​ idea. None. I know there are easy narratives we can grasp at – They’re not built for playoff hockey! They don’t want it bad enough! They haven’t had to face enough adversity! – but I think we all realize on some level that it’s nonsense. Teams that rack up 62 wins don’t suddenly become fatally flawed in the playoffs.

Except that yeah, the Lightning sure seem flawed. A month ago I wrote about pretty much this exact scenario, where the Lightning suffer through a shocking exit and we all race to slap an explanation on it. But even then, I was working under the assumption that a Lightning upset would feel like, well, an upset. That they’d run into a hot goalie or have a bunch of bad bounces or whatever. That’s not what’s happening. They’re getting their butts kicked. The Blue Jackets have been the better team since the first period of Game 1. This is some history-making madness.

So yeah, I’m as lost as you are. But the reality is that there’s a good chance that the series ends tonight, and the Lightning season will end without so much as a playoff win to their name. And they may not be alone – the 100-point Penguins are also staring down a sweep tonight. Those are two pretty good teams, and they might combine for zero wins in the postseason.

That’s hard to explain. But it’s not unprecedented. So today, let’s try to make Lightning fans feel better – or let’s face it, probably worse – by looking back at eight of the best regular season teams in NHL history who didn’t win a single playoff game.

The team: 1992-93 Chicago Blackhawks

The regular season: Under rookie head coach Darryl Sutter, the Hawks had one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. They finished the year with a record of 47-25-12, good for a conference-best 106 points that set up a first-round meeting with the 85-point Blues. Easy, right?

The disaster: Curtis Joseph has a weird tendency to show up in these stories. This one was the 24-year-old’s first time performing what would become his trademark move for the rest of the ’90s: pretty much single-handedly winning a playoff series.

After making 24 saves in a 4-3 win in Game 1, Joseph went on to shut out the Hawks in back-to-back games, making 81 saves in the process. That pushed the Hawks to the brink, and while Chicago would find the net again in Game 4, the Blues finished the job in overtime. That goal came with a bit of controversy, and an appropriately heated Ed Belfour meltdown.

The epilogue: This was the second stunning first-round exit in three years by the Hawks; they’d lost to the North Stars in six games in 1991. They’d followed that with a trip to the final in 1992, but there was no similar rebound here. The Hawks would win just three more rounds in 15 seasons until reemerging as Cup contenders in the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane era.

The team: The 1980-81 Canadiens

The regular season: By 1981, the Habs dynasty of the late-70s was essentially over. For the first time in five years, they hadn’t won the Cup in 1980, and key pieces like Scotty Bowman, Jacques Lemaire and Ken Dryden were gone. But they still had guys like Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt on a roster that featured seven Hall of Famers, and they rolled to a conference-best 103 points. That earned them an easy first-round matchup against a 74-point team that had never won a playoff game.

The disaster: That first-round opponent was the Edmonton Oilers, and they turned out to have a few Hall of Famers of their own. Even though they’d only won 29 of their 80 games during the season, the Oilers stunned the Canadiens by pumping home 15 goals in a three-game preliminary round sweep.

The epilogue: Those early-80s best-of-five openers were tricky – they also saw sweeps of 100-point teams like the 1982-83 Flyers, 1983-84 Sabres and 1983-84 Bruins.

As for the Canadiens, they finished first again in 1981-82, only to suffer yet another first-round upset, this time to the Nordiques in five. Montreal wouldn’t win another playoff round until Steve Penney showed up in 1984, and some other rookie goalie who arrived a year later helped them get back to winning Cups. And those upstart Oilers went on to win a few of their own.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Monday, April 15, 2019

The 2019 OGWAC rankings

OK,​ kids. Hike up​ your​ pants​ around​ your​ armpits,​ hang an​ onion from your​ belt and park​ your​ walker over by​​ rotary phone, because it’s time for the annual OGWAC rankings.

For you newbies, an OGWAC is that beloved species of hockey player whose story everyone loves to hear during the playoffs: the Old Guy Without a Cup. He’s the grizzled veteran who’s been around forever and has probably come agonizingly close a time or two, but he doesn’t have a ring and he’s running out of time. Everyone’s rooting for him, and if his team does win it all, he usually gets the honor of being the first in line for the Cup handoff.

The greatest OGWAC story of all-time is Ray Bourque in 2001, one that still makes the toughest hockey fan you know cry a little. Others include Teemu Selanne in 2007, Lanny McDonald in 1989 and Kimmo Timonen in 2015. Last season’s OGWAC story was Alexander Ovechkin, who was a little young for the honor but has somehow had grey hair for five years, so we’ll allow it.

I’ve been breaking down the annual OGWAC rankings going back to the Grantland days and the format hasn’t changed much. It doesn’t need to, because the OGWAC is timeless. Or so I thought. Because this year, I’m starting to wonder if we don’t need something new.

I think we might need to introduce the OGWACWIT: The Old Guy With a Cup Who Isn’t Thornton.

After all, there isn’t really a ton of suspense about the top spot in these rankings. Joe Thornton has emerged as one of the league’s most lovable characters and will be a no-questions-asked Hall-of-Famer as soon as he’s eligible. But he’s about to turn 40 and has battled injuries in recent years. He’s almost at the end of the road and still doesn’t have his ring. He’s pretty much the archetypal OGWAC right now.

Even as wait to see if last night’s high hit on Tomas Nosek gets him suspended, Thornton is going to rank at the top of our list. Sorry for the spoiler. But there are plenty of other guys who are worth a mention too. Let’s count down the best stories of the Cupless guys who a.) are at least 33 years old; b.) have played at least ten seasons; c.) are in the playoffs and either playing or at least have a chance to at some point.

With the criteria set, let’s get to the rankings. We’re going to need a top 15 this time, because for reasons I’m not quite clear on, there are just a ton of great OGWAC candidates this year. And even a few OGWACWITs.

15. Dan Hamhuis, Predators

Hamhuis is a nice starting point because he’s basically the classic OGWAC story. He’s 36, has played 15 seasons and won’t have too many more shots at this. And of course, he had an agonizing near-miss in 2011 with the Canucks. That loss was especially tough for Hamhuis, since he was hurt in the first game of the final and didn’t play again. He hasn’t won a playoff round since.

This year’s Predators are an especially loaded OGWAC team, as we’ll see a little bit further down. That hurts Hamhuis’s standing just a bit, but he’s still worthy of a spot on our list.

14. Matt Hendricks, Jets

Hendricks is a bit of a tricky call. On the one hand, he’s a 37-year-old role player and his teammates love him. And unlike some of the other players on this list, this really does seem like his last shot at a Cup. On the other, there’s a good chance we won’t see him suit up for the Jets during this run – he barely played down the stretch and is really here to be a veteran leader as opposed to an on-ice contributor. In terms of the Jets who matter during this postseason, Hendricks doesn’t rank that high.

Still, it’s a long way to a Stanley Cup, and if the Jets can get past the Blues and go deep, you never know who they might need. And if Hendricks was in the lineup for a Cup win, he’d be close to a guaranteed first handoff. We’ll rank him here and hope against hope that his case gets stronger in the weeks to come.

13. Blake Comeau, Stars

Comeau’s the youngest player on our list, having just turned 33 in February. But he’s had the classic journeyman career that can make for a great OGWAC story, playing 13 seasons for six teams and never having seen the second round of the playoffs. In fact, he’s only ever been part of six playoff wins, including Game 1 against the Predators.

We can’t rank him too high since he’s presumably got more runway left than most of the other guys on this list. But let’s consider him an OGWAC prospect to keep an eye on.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Friday, April 12, 2019

Grab Bag: Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's a bed sheet

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- A deeper look at that amazing NBC playoff portrait
- A word about postseason trolling
- An obscure player who knew how to start a playoff series
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring a victory lap from Mr. Lottery
- And a YouTube breakdown of the Leafs setting a playoff record exactly 40 years ago today, and celebrating it very weirdly...

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Thursday, April 11, 2019

Eight games that changed the results of the NHL draft lottery

OK,​ so maybe there​ really​ wasn’t​ a lot​ of​ suspense​ to be​ had in Tuesday’s​ draft lottery. You​ could​ have saved yourself​​ some time by just reading my preview, which correctly predicted the Devils winning the top pick. Or you could have skipped that too and just known which team Taylor Hall plays for.

Hall is Mr. Lottery, a fact he’s embraced over the years and was quick to remind us of that night:

It’s possible that Hall is just unstoppable, and nothing could have prevented the lottery from playing out the way it did. Then again, maybe you don’t buy into that particular brand of superstition.

If so, then you’ve come to the right place, because it’s time for the annual round of “Find a single game from the season that would have changed the lottery outcome.”

This has been kind of a hobby of mine over the years. For every draft lottery, once you know who won, you can look back and find games from that season that altered the results. The most memorable example is probably the infamous Patrik Stefan flub, which ended up sending Patrick Kane to the Blackhawks instead of the Oilers. Edmonton’s win in the last game ever played at Rexall Place ended up costing them Auston Matthews. A late Geoff Sanderson goal in 2004 cost the Blue Jackets the Alexander Ovechkin pick.

You can do this all day. It’s fun. Or, depending on your perspective and how close your team came to a franchise-altering lottery win, extremely un-fun.

First, let’s explain what we’re even talking about. Many fans assume that the NHL draft lottery just involves a barrel full of ping pong balls with each team’s logo on them. That would be the easy way to do it, but the league is looking for more control over the odds. So instead, they use 14 numbered balls, and draw four of them. That gives them 1,001 combinations, which they assign in advance to the qualifying teams. (You can read about the whole process on this page; the actual number combos can be found here; these were the actual winners.)

Those combinations are handed out based on the final standings, which means that it’s not really teams that are winning or losing the lottery at all – it’s spots in the standings. There are three winners every year, and this year the lucky slots were 29th, 26th and 20th. Whichever teams were holding down those spots were going to win. We just didn’t know that until Tuesday night.

(I’ll pause here to acknowledge that you can get into some “time traveler steps on a butterfly” arguments here, where changing the results of one game ends up impacting other things that happen in the future. If you feel very strongly about this and won’t be able to enjoy this premise because of it, I encourage you to go argue philosophy in the comment section of a Mirtle article while the rest of us have a little fun here.)

Some years, there’s no single game that would change a certain result. For example, in the Connor McDavid lottery in 2015, no team was even within five points of the Oilers on either side, so they could have won or lost a few extra games without changing anything. But other years, we get plenty of what if scenarios.

This is one of those years. By my count, there are 12 teams that could have won or lost one of the three lottery draws based on changing the outcome of just one game on their schedule. So that’s what we’re going to do today. Here are some of the (many) games from the 2018-19 season that could have altered the result of Tuesday’s draft lottery.

Arizona Coyotes – March 26

The Coyotes finished with 86 points, two up on Chicago for that winning No. 20 spot. But they also would have held the ROW tiebreaker, so just having them lose an extra game doesn’t do it. No, we have to flip the results of a game where they beat the Blackhawks. And luckily, we have two to choose from.

The first was a 4-1 win in Chicago on Oct. 18. But all else being equal we prefer more recent games – less time for those butterflies to get stepped on, and all – so let’s go with March 26. On that night, the Hawks and Coyotes went into the third period locked in a 0-0 tie. Arizona’s Nick Cousins banged home a rebound to make it 1-0, and the lead held up for a regulation win.

If the Hawks get that first goal instead and win the game, the Coyotes end up dropping to 20th, and they’re holding the lucky combo to move up to the third-overall pick. Instead, they’re picking 14th, all because of one game.

See how this works? Fun, right? Trust me, it’s going to get so much worse.

Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres – November 30

The Panthers finished tied with the Coyotes but make for an easier case because they wouldn’t have owned the tiebreaker against the Hawks, meaning all we have to do is turn any ROW into a regulation loss. Meanwhile, the Sabres finished two points back of the Rangers and held that tiebreaker, so they move into a winning spot with one additional regulation win. That gives us plenty of games to choose from, but it’s always fun to try to change two results with one game, and we get a chance to do that here.

We’ll head back to Nov. 30, as the Sabres visit the Panthers in Florida. The night before had seen Buffalo’s 10-game win streak come to an end at the hands of the Lightning, so you could expect a bit of a letdown for a tired road team on short rest. And indeed, the Panthers largely dominated the game, outshooting Buffalo 43-24. But Linus Ullmark stood on his head, and the Sabres held a 2-1 lead late in the third. That’s when Casey Nelson took a high-sticking penalty, and the Panthers converted on the power play to tie the game and send it to overtime, where Aleksander Barkov would win it.

If the Sabres manage to hold onto their lead, they win in regulation and end up finishing 26th and winning the second-overall pick, while the Panthers drop down to 20th and pick third. Two teams, two high picks, both gone because of one game.

Keep your sticks down, kids.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The bandwagon-hopper’s guide to the 2019 playoffs

The​ playoffs begin tonight,​ as​ we​ start​ a journey​ that​ will see​ 16 teams battle​ it out until​ only​ one is left​​ to lift the Stanley Cup. Of course, that means there are also 15 teams that didn’t get an invite, so nearly half the league’s fans don’t have anyone to root for.

When your team doesn’t make the postseason, there are two ways you can respond. The first is to spend the next two months hating the world, openly cheering against all 16 playoff teams and dedicating yourself to stomping out any spark of happiness you find in any other fan base. This is the default setting and I highly recommend it.

But not everyone leans that way. For some, it’s more fun to have some sort rooting interest in the postseason, even if it’s only temporary. Those fans have an important decision to make, and they’ve only got a few hours left to make it.

Those fans need a bandwagon.

It’s a tough call to make. You want to pick a team that’s fun and easy to get behind. Some inspiring plotlines certainly help. Ideally you also want a team that might actually win something, so that you’re not just signing up for the misery of an early exit. But you also don’t want a team that’s already got a trophy case full of hardware, because even in the bandwagon game there’s nothing worse than a front-runner.

I’m here to help. So today, I’ve ranked the 16 playoffs teams in terms of their bandwagon potential for you fans who are into that sort of thing. We’re here for a good time, not for a long time, so let’s find you a temporary team.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins

Why you should get on board: They’ve got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a ton of star power, and there’s a decent chance they’re gong to win it all. You know… again.

Why you shouldn’t: Remember what we said about front-running? The Penguins have won three Cups in the last decade, including two of the last three. They didn’t win last year, so this wouldn’t be quite as bad as jumping on the bandwagon of, say, the Patriots or Warriors. But it wouldn’t be far off.

Bottom line: Also, they’re facing a classic feel-good story in the first round. If you choose this moment to jump on the Penguins’ bandwagon, you might be a bad person.

15. Dallas Stars

Why you should get on board: It’s always fun to hop on the bandwagon of an underdog and then watch them pull off an upset or two. The Stars could certainly do that, as they’ll face a favored Predators team that seems beatable. If they can pull it off, you’ll be along for the ride. And if they can’t, there’s a good chance they’ll at least get all dramatic about it.

Why you shouldn’t: The Stars feature great defence and goaltending but don’t score much. If you can pick any team in the league to root for, do you really want to go with the one that’s going to try to bore its way to a title?

Bottom line: I’m all for a classic underdog pick, but there are better options available.

14. Colorado Avalanche

Why you should get on board: They’re a fun team with three star forwards, not to mention plenty of underdog cred given where they were just a few years ago. And like the Stars, they’ll go into the first round as longshots but it’s hardly inconceivable that they could pull of the upset.

Why you shouldn’t: Could they beat the Flames? It’s possible, sure. Are they going to win the Cup? It would take a near-miracle. That means you’re basically signing up for heartbreak, and it’s just a question of how quickly it arrives.

Bottom line: They should be more fun than the Stars, but you’re still probably looking for a new team after a round or two.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The 2019 draft lottery power rankings

It’s​ draft lottery night​ in​ the​ NHL,​ and​ if​ it feels​ a little early to​ be saying that,​ well,​ that’s because it​​ is. The league has moved the drawing up this year, abandoning the usual slot as pre-game entertainment during the first round to give the ping pong balls a night to themselves in the spotlight.

There are 15 teams in the running, with odds ranging from the Avalanche (via Ottawa) at 18.5 percent to the Canadiens at just one percent; you can find the odds for all 15 teams right here. We’ve spent most of the year looking at this as the Jack Hughes draft, and it still seems headed that way even as Kaapo Kakko has pushed his way into the conversation. If you count Kakko as a second can’t-miss prospect at the top of the draft, that just makes tonight’s lottery all the more important. Remember, the top three spots are all up for grabs under the new format introduced in 2016.

With that much on the line, we’re going to need more than a list of percentages to get prepared. So as we count down the hours until the big reveal, let’s take a look at the contenders from various angles with the annual Draft Lottery Power Rankings.

The “Which Team Needs It Most?” Ranking

Every team needs a Jack Hughes or a Kaapo Kakko. But some teams need them more than others.

Not ranked: Ottawa Senators – I mean, they clearly need a top prospect. It’s just that … yeah … about that…

5. Buffalo Sabres – This team needs help pretty much anywhere, not to mention some reason for optimism, and adding Hughes or Kakko to Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin would provide both. Besides, who better to take advantage of multiple lottery wins than reported next head coach Todd McLellan?

4. Los Angeles Kings – They’re old and bad and don’t have much going for them beyond California winters.

3. Anaheim Ducks – They’re old and bad and don’t have much going for them beyond California winters and not being the Kings.

2. Edmonton Oilers – They could certainly use a winger, which would make Kakko a viable option even if they land the top pick. But more importantly, they need some good news in a town where fans, media, and even the franchise player are all sick of losing. Besides, it would be the first time that the Oilers winning a draft lottery made Connor McDavid happy.

1. Detroit Red Wings – They have a new arena to fill and might be looking to attract a new GM – potentially one who suddenly has his eye on some other job. And while they’ve got Dylan Larkin and some solid youth on the way, it’s been a long time since they’ve drafted a sure-thing prospect, especially at center.

Add it all up, and no team would see their outlook shoot up more with a lottery win. Luckily they’ve had a bad year so their odds are great, according to fans who stopped watching with three weeks to go in the season.

The “Who Actually Deserves It?” Rankings

Nobody deserves it, because we continue to rely on random ping pong balls instead of the vastly superior Gold Plan, under which teams would actually have to earn the top pick. But since that would be fun and cool and therefore out of the question for today’s NHL, let’s do our best to figure out if there’s anyone we should be rooting for more than anyone else.

Not ranked: Edmonton Oilers – We’re all on the same page here? Cool, just making sure.

5. Los Angeles Kings – The point of the draft is to help bad teams, and the worst of the teams that still have their pick.

4. New York Rangers – They’re rebuilding, but doing it with a Hall of Fame goalie, so it’s not like you can say that they’re tanking. They haven’t picked in the top three in over 50 years, and have also never won a lottery. In fact, the only time they show up in the story of lottery history is to note that they once traded for a winning pick and then used it to select Pavel Brendl. That alone should probably entitle them to a little bit of karma.

3. Montreal Canadiens – They weren’t just the last team eliminated, they actually finished ahead of three Western playoff teams. That has to warrant a little bit of luck, right?

2. Detroit Red Wings – In an alternate universe where we do use the Gold Plan, the Red Wings’ hot streak to end the season means they would have held off the Kings for top spot.

1. Colorado Avalanche – This is usually a tough category to crown a winner in, but not this year. The Avalanche are the only team that can claim that they’ve earned their shot at the top pick not by losing, but by outsmarting another team. They didn’t tank, because they didn’t have to. They outsourced the job to somebody who could do it better.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Monday, April 8, 2019

Puck Soup: Playoff preview

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg, Ryan and I make out first-round picks
- I defend the Leafs' chances while still picking the Bruins
- We react to a busy weekend of coaching changes
- I try to sell the guys on the merits of the Gold Plan
- A discussion about Connor McDavid's future gets heated until Bobby Ryan arrives to shut it down
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.




Weekend rankings: Why every playoff team will (and won’t) win the Cup in a season-ending top 16

Well,​ that turned out​ to​ be​ an​ interesting​ weekend.

It​ wasn’t an​ especially important one,​ at least in​ terms​ of the playoffs.​​ Despite a loaded Saturday night schedule that had seemed like it would make for can’t-miss viewing a few weeks ago, we came into the weekend with only one spot up for grabs, and that one was wrapped up by the Blue Jackets on Friday.

Still, there were seedings and home ice to figure out, so let’s start with a quick roundup. The Predators held off the Jets and Blues to win the Central, the Islanders held onto home ice in the Metro, and we narrowly missed a first-round dream matchup of Caps/Pens. Instead, Pittsburgh will face the Islanders while the Caps get a tricky wildcard matchup with the Hurricanes. The Flames get the Avs, the Stars head to Nashville, and the Blue Jackets gets the fun task of trying to knock off the Lightning. The full matchups and schedule can be found here.

The highlight of the weekend came on Saturday, with the final game of Bob Cole’s legendary career. The Leafs and Habs gave him plenty of action to call, abandoning defence to near-historic levels and serving up an all-timer debut by Ryan Poehling that had the Bell Centre rocking. It all ended in a shootout – yes, the streak is over – and an outpouring of tributes for Cole from around the hockey world.

That game was followed by the Oilers and Flames, and what briefly seemed like it would be by far the biggest story of the weekend. Connor McDavid’s high-speed collision with the goal post left him writhing on the ice with what we all assumed was a broken leg.

And then, just as we were still figuring out timelines for his return and how they’d impact next season, word came that X-rays were negative. That’s huge for the Oilers, an organization that clearly can’t afford any more bad news as they head into a crucial offseason.

In individual news, Nikita Kucherov finished with the highest point total since 1995-96 while breaking the scoring record for Russian players, Leon Draisaitl hit the 50-goal mark, Alexander Ovechkin won his eighth Rocket Richard, and Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess held off the Stars to win the Jennings.

On Sunday, we didn’t waste any time getting to the coaching casualties, as the Panthers parted ways with Bob Boughner while releasing a hilarious press release that basically said “We’re hiring Joel Quenneville” without mentioning his name. They’ve schedule a news conference for noon today, where they will introduce Quenneville as coach. We’ve also got a new opening in Buffalo, where Phil Housley was relieved of his duties yesterday after two years on the job, and Los Angeles, where interim coach Willie Desjardins will not return.

So now it’s on to the playoffs. But first, one last set of power rankings. All year long, we’ve been presenting a top five and bottom five every Monday morning. But in this final edition, it seems like a top five just isn’t enough. After all, we’ve got 16 teams still standing. Shouldn’t we close out the season by ranking each and every one of them?

No, we should not. This is a terrible idea that will make everyone hate me. But we’re doing it anyway, complete with reasons why each playoff team will (and won’t) win the Cup.

But since we’re already playing with the format this week, let’s switch it up a bit more and lead things off with one last look at the bottom five before we move on to the main event.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)





Friday, April 5, 2019

Grab Bag: Lots left to play for

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The playoff races are mostly settled, but there's still lots left to play for... kind of.
- A request for people who direct NHL telecasts
- The week's three comedy stars
- An obscure player who's really just an excuse to tell the story of the craziest season finale in NHL history
- And a YouTube look back at the craziest goalie pull of all time

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)





Puck Soup: Playoff draft

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Greg, Ryan and I draft a new player for each of the playoff teams from one of the teams that missed
- Rounding up NHL coaches on the hot seat
- The collapse of the CWHL and what it might mean
- The season's least valuable players
- I put my undefeated streak on the line in a Wrestlemania quiz against Ryan
- And more...


>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.





Thursday, April 4, 2019

When playoff matchups nobody is all that excited about turn out to be great

With​ just a few days​ left​ in​ the​ regular​ season,​ we’re starting​ to get some​ clarity around the​ first-round​ playoff pairings. We’re​​ going to get to see some of the matchups we were hoping for, like the Sharks facing the Golden Knights, another rematch between the Maple Leafs and Bruins, and probably also the Penguins squaring off with the Islanders. On paper, each of those looks like it should be great.

Of course, there will also be a handful of matchups that don’t seem to have quite as much going for them. Flames vs. Avalanche? That should be fine. Lightning vs. Blue Jackets? I guess. Stars at Jets or Predators? Why not, sure. Those are all good teams, and those matchups should be worth watching. There just won’t be much in the way of history or obvious storylines to get excited about.

That’s the thing about NHL playoff matchups. Sometimes you get two longtime rivals or star-studded contenders on a collision course, and all the hype just writes itself. But sometimes you get two teams where you just kind of go “sure, that will be OK.”

Then again, we’ve been down this road before. Every season brings at least a few matchups that, at least in the lead-up, don’t generate much more than a shrug emoji. But sometimes, at least one of those series ends up being among the very best we see.

So today, let’s get set for the postseason by remembering some of the times that a playoff series that didn’t necessarily seem to have much going for it turned out to be great, or at least memorable. This isn’t the full list, of course, and you’re welcome to chime in with your own picks in the comments. But these picks all serve as reminders that sometimes, a matchup that seems underwhelming can turn out to be something more than you were expecting.

1997: Oilers vs. Stars

The matchup: The Stars had finished tied for the league’s second-best record with 104 points. Despite finishing under .500, the Oilers snuck into the West’s final playoff spot.

Why it was underwhelming: Dallas had only recently made the leap from also-ran to powerhouse, while the Oilers hadn’t even made the playoffs in four years. This was going to be your typical speed bump matchup between a legitimate Cup contender gearing up for a long run and a mediocre team that was just happy to be there.

But then…: Game 1 mostly followed the script, with the Stars holding on for the expected win. But an Oilers shutout in Game 2 signaled that we might have a series on our hands, and the next five games were all one-goal nail-biters. The Oilers won three of them in overtime, including a 1-0 double OT thriller in Game 5. And of course, the series ended with one of the most stunning Game 7 overtime sequences in recent memory:

In a case of diminishing returns, the two teams would meet again in five of the next six postseasons, with the Stars winning each and every one. But just because the sequels were bad doesn’t mean the original was any less of a classic.

2010: Canadiens vs. Capitals

The matchup: The Capitals had run away with the Presidents’ Trophy. The Canadiens had barely made the playoffs with 88 points.

Why it was underwhelming: In the first (and still only) playoff meeting between the two teams, the only question was whether Montreal would manage to win a game before Washington moved on to their inevitable showdown with the Penguins.

But then…: Montreal did indeed win a game, taking the opener on the road. But then Alexander Ovechkin and the high-flying Capitals settled in, pumping home 17 goals over the next three games to take a 3-1 series lead back to Washington.

And then, Jaroslav Halak showed up.

Halak went on to steal three straight games as the Canadiens pulled off the stunning upset despite the Capitals largely dominating all three games. To this day, it remains perhaps the greatest example of a hot goalie derailing a powerhouse. Halak and the Habs would go on to surprise the Penguins too before finally falling to the Flyers. Meanwhile, the Capitals’ reputation as playoff chokers had been cemented, and the loss sent the organization through a half-decade of self-doubt and bad decisions.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Everything I needed to know in life I learned from watching Bob Cole call hockey games

The​ NHL regular season​ comes​ to​ an​ end​ on​ Saturday with​ a full slate of​ games highlighted by​ a marquee​ Canadian matchup between​​ the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. The game could decide the East’s final playoff spot, or it may not matter at all as far as the standings go. But either way, the broadcast will be must-see viewing for plenty of hockey fans across the country and beyond, because it’s going to be the last game of Bob Cole’s legendary play-by-play career.

We’ve known this night was coming for years, as Hockey Night in Canada gradually pared back Cole’s schedule. This season has turned into a farewell tour of sorts, with tributes and standing ovations in buildings around the league. Hockey fans have certainly had time to prepare for the moment. Just not enough.

For many of us, an NHL without Bob Cole is almost unimaginable. After a half-century in the booth, most of today’s fans have literally never known a hockey world in which Cole wasn’t calling games. Pick a hockey moment from your life that made you jump out of your seat, or stare in disbelief, or even want to put a fist through your TV screen, and chances are Cole was the voice that went along with it.

Like a lot of you, I grew up with Bob Cole. My kids have too. But rather than get weepy over a moment we all knew would arrive someday, I’d rather celebrate the 50 years that led us to this point. Because Cole hasn’t just entertained me over the years – he’s taught me a few things along the way. So here are 10 important life lessons I’ve learned from watching a legend.

Lesson No. 1: It’s OK to show some enthusiasm…

Let’s start with the best thing about listening to Bob Cole: He really, really seemed to like hockey.

That seems like a weird thing to say about somebody who makes their living televising a sport. But these days, even the best broadcasts are often brought down by a parade of dour voices who don’t seem to like anything or anyone involved. There are plenty of valid reason to criticize this league and its teams, and nobody tunes in to see a pep rally, but there’s only so many grumpy faces you can handle in one show, you know?

I think that’s a big part of what we loved about Bob Cole. He’d get loud, and sometimes very loud. But he never sounded like he was putting on an act, or forcing out some scripted line he’d rehearsed in front of the mirror. He just seemed like a guy who genuinely liked hockey, and when his volume went up it was because the moment deserved it.

Lesson No. 2: … but never fake it

The other side of the hockey TV coin are the guys who try a little too hard. They’re all fake passion and over-the-top enthusiasm, to the point where you’re wondering why they’re yelling at you when it’s only pregame warmup. And while I love Mike Lange and Rick Jeanneret as much as anyone else, if you’re not one of those two guys then you probably don’t need to try to do the whole clever catchphrase thing.

Cole never really had a catchphrase. I suppose you could make a case for something like “Oh baby” but that was more of a genuine exclamation of excitement than something manufactured. You never felt like Cole was sitting there in the booth with a note to remind himself to say it a few times a night because it was his trademark and he had to get it out there.

No, when you heard an “Oh baby” from Bob Cole you knew it was because he’d just seen something cool and wanted to make sure you knew about it.

Lesson No. 3: The world is changing

I can’t find a clip, but I know a few of you will back me up on this. Back in the late ’90s the NHL started experimenting with its All-Star game, and at one point it decided to go with an international-themed format that would see players from Canada and the U.S. facing a team made up of everyone else. They called it North America vs. The World.

The format wasn’t all that good and didn’t last long, but it left two lasting legacies. The first is a bunch of really weird All-Star picks like Petr Buzek and Marcus Ragnarsson. And the second, and far more important, is the time that Cole punctuated an otherwise ordinary line change by dramatically announcing that “THE WORLD IS CHANGING.” It might be my favorite random Cole moment ever. Yes, even better than the immortal “everything is happening” although it goes without saying that was also amazing.

The world was, indeed, changing, and has been ever since. And anytime anyone makes that observation, I can’t help but hear it in Bob Cole’s voice.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)




Monday, April 1, 2019

Weekend power rankings: What we know and what we don’t heading into the season’s final week

One​ week to go,​ and​ the​ picture​ is​ starting​ to come​ into focus.

Let’s start​ with what we​ know.​ Ten teams have​​ already clinched playoff spots and Dallas, Pittsburgh and Toronto are all close enough that it would take an epic collapse for any of them to miss. We also know that the Lightning have won the Presidents’ Trophy and will have home ice throughout the playoffs, that the Flames will be the top seed in the West and that the Sharks will host the Golden Knights in the other Pacific matchup. Toronto and Boston are close enough to a sure thing in the Atlantic, almost certainly with Boston having home ice, that we can go ahead and call it a done deal.

That leaves one wildcard spot in the West and two in the East. That Western slot looks like it will come down to the Coyotes and Avalanche; we can’t quite write off the Wild but after yesterday’s loss it’s getting close and the Blackhawks and Oilers are mathematically alive but would both need a miracle.

Colorado owns a one-point lead on Arizona with the ROW tie-breaker still up for grabs and has a game in hand that they’ll use tonight in a tough one in St. Louis. After that, the two teams have remarkably similar schedules the rest of the way, with both teams hosting Winnipeg and a bad team (Edmonton for the Avs, the Kings for the Coyotes) and also visiting one of the Pacific contenders (San Jose for Colorado and Vegas for Arizona).

In the East, it’s down to Montreal chasing Columbus and Carolina, with all three teams having three games left. The Blue Jackets are in the best shape, holding a one-point lead on the Hurricanes and two on the Canadiens along with the ROW tie-breaker and they’ve heated up at exactly the right time to the tune of five straight wins. Carolina still controls their own destiny and has a workable schedule, facing the struggling Leafs tomorrow and then closing with the Devils and Flyers. Montreal has the toughest hill to climb, facing the Lightning, Capitals and Leafs, although all three of those teams might not have much to play for. Still, Montreal needs some help.

(Hey Montreal fans, would now be a good time to point out that the Habs are on pace for a playoff miss despite being 14th overall, ahead of all the Western wildcard contenders and even the Golden Knights too? No? OK, forget I brought it up.)

We’re also still waiting to see who’ll win the Metro, where the Caps have control, and the Central, where the Jets and Predators have slowed down enough to let the Blues back into the picture. And there’s still the Art Ross and Rocket Richard to figure out, although Nikita Kucherov and Alexander Ovechkin, respectively, are close to locking those up.

While we might be close to having all this sorted out, we are still staring down what could be a dramatic week. With that, let’s move onto the rankings. The top five is pretty straightforward this week and I’m sure you’ll agree with my picks. Haha, April Fools.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Last week, I made the call to move the Golden Knights into the top five, dropping San Jose out for the first time in ten weeks. My reward was watching the Knights lose four straight this week, including Saturday’s showdown with those same Sharks. Thanks, guys.

The Knights are back out, opening a spot for someone else. But who? Not the Sharks, who haven’t won in regulation is three weeks, got smoked at home by the Flames last night and couldn’t even beat Vegas without also doing stuff like this. It’s certainly not the Predators, who’ve lost more than they’ve won since the first week of February or the Leafs, who lost to the Senators yet again. Maybe it’s the Blues, who continue to roll along and still have a shot at winning the Central. Or maybe it’s the Islanders, who somewhat quietly have more points than anyone else in this paragraph.

But when in doubt, we’ll play it safe by replacing the Knights with a new team that isn’t all that new. You’ll find them down in the four-slot, once we get past yet another struggling contender …

5. Winnipeg Jets (45-29-4, +29 true goals differential*) – Needless to say, I don’t feel great about this pick. The Jets have the edge in the Central race, with a game in hand on the Predators, a two-point lead on the Blues and (probably) control of the tie-breaker. That all puts them in a good position to draw a very winnable matchup with a wildcard team.

But they’ve also looked shaky down the stretch with the Central title there for the taking, including three losses this week. There are all sorts of warning lights blinking on the Jets’ dashboard and I’m not convinced that they’re a better team than the Islanders or even the Blues right now. But they are in position to earn a better playoff path, and when you’re trying to measure Cup odds, that matters a lot.

4. Washington Capitals (47-24-8, +30) – The Capitals move back into the top five, thanks to winning four straight and looking like they’re going to hold off the Islanders for the Metro title. Getting a wildcard opponent in the first round isn’t as much of an advantage as it is out west – they’ll probably get a very good Hurricanes team, or a very hot Blue Jackets one and could even end up with the Penguins. But it helps, and after Saturday’s impressive win over Tampa, we’ll slot the Capitals in even though not everyone is buying what they’re selling.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)