Friday, May 24, 2019

Grab Bag: Stanley Cup preview

In the Friday Grab Bag
- A Stanley Cup previews, as per hockey writing bylaws
- The schedule for the final is kind of terrible but that's not really the NHL's fault
- An obscure player who had a miraculous playoff game
- The week's three comedy stars
- And a YouTube look back at what may have been the greatest moment in Blues' playoff history, at least until this week

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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Remembering each year’s ultimate playoff losers (and why the 2019 Penguins could top them all)

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with the concept of a postseason’s biggest loser. Maybe it has something to do with being into my fourth decade of cheering for a team that never wins the Stanley Cup, but I’ve never bought into the idea that one team wins, 15 teams don’t, and all those losers are basically in the same boat of leaguewide failure.

Nonsense. Not all losers are created equal, and some come closer to the Cup than others. Obviously, the team that loses in the final is a near-miss, one their fans will probably always remember. But depending on how you look at it, other teams could claim to have come close too.

And then you’ve got the other side of the coin: The one and only one team each year that has the worst possible playoff experience. That’s the one I’ve always been interested in.

Specifically, I’m looking for the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that won the Stanley Cup.

That’s a lot of losses. In fact, the first time you read through them all, it feels like too much losing to cram into one postseason. But it all adds up. We’re looking for the team that suffers a first-round exit at the hands of an opponent that goes out in the second round. And then the team that beat that team goes out in the third round. And that team goes to the final, where they lose to the Cup winner.

It all leaves that first team as far from the Cup as possible. Four degrees of playoff failure. The ultimate loser. A quad fraud. The tetrad of bad.

OK, maybe the name needs work, but I love the concept.

Let’s say you’re a team like this year’s Maple Leafs or Jets. Sure, you’re disappointed by a first-round exit, one that initially made you feel like you were still a long way away from contending for a Stanley Cup. But what if the Bruins or Blues go on to win it all? That changes your perception. Now, you gave the eventual champs all they could handle. If you really wanted to, you could tell yourself that you might even have been the second-best team in the entire playoffs, one that just had the bad luck to run into a tough early matchup with the eventual champs.

But if you’re the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the team that lost to the Stanley Cup winners? There’s no sugar-coating that. You were miles away from winning anything. You lost as badly as you could possibly lose.

Or at least, that’s what I always thought. But this year, the concept is getting a new twist that I’m almost afraid to bring up. You know how you’re not supposed to talk about a pitcher taking a perfect game into the ninth inning? That’s where I’m at on this. It’s almost too wonderful to mention. But I wouldn’t be much of a journalist if I didn’t talk about an important developing story, and besides, I know from my recent Twitter mentions that many of you are already on top of this one. So I might as well spit it out.

Ladies and gentlemen, we might actually see the first ever case of a team that got swept by the team that got swept by the team that got swept by the team that got swept by the Stanley Cup champions.

That is insane. It shouldn’t be mathematically possible for us to be anywhere close. And yet here we are. And it’s made even better by the identity of the team that might pull it off: Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They were swept by the Islanders in Round 1. Then the Islanders were swept by the Hurricanes in Round 2. The Canes were swept by the Bruins in the conference final. If Boston goes out in four straight in the final, the Penguins will have finished as far from the Stanley Cup as is even theoretically possible. They’d basically be 0-for-16. If it happens, I’m pretty sure the entire league has to fold.

Needless to say, I am way too excited about this possibility. I’m not going to go as far as to ask the Bruins to come right out and throw the Cup final, because that would be ridiculous. But if they lose the first two games at home then yes, they should absolutely throw the Cup final. Just devote the rest of the series to hanging a historical embarrassment on a longtime rival. As the song goes, the chance may never come again.

Of course, if the Bruins refuse to play along and actually win the final, that will let the Penguins off the hook entirely. Instead, this year’s ultimate loser honors would go to the Flames, since they lost to the Avs who lost to the Sharks who lost to the Blues. Still fun, but not quite as mesmerizing as the possibility of the quattro-sweep.

As we all wait with bated breath to see which scenario plays out, let’s take a few moments to celebrate the history of the NHL’s ultimate playoff losers, dating back to the first four-round playoff back in 1975.

The recent history

By definition, the quadruple loser has to come from the opposite conference as the eventual Cup winner, so the last few years have been dominated by the West.

Last season, it was the Avalanche who earned the honors – they lost to the Predators, who lost to the Jets, who lost to the Knights, who lost to the Capitals. In 2017, it was Sharks; they lost to the Oilers, who lost to the Ducks, who lost to the Predators, who lost to the Penguins. And in 2016 it was the Wild, thanks to their loss to the Stars, who lost to the Blues, who lost to the Sharks, who lost to the Penguins.

So already, we can start to get some clarity on one of the questions that you may have been wondering about: Does any of this actually matter? And the answer: Apparently not!

The Avalanche followed up their nightmare playoffs by having pretty much the same season, making it back to the wild card this year. The Sharks rebounded to become one of the league’s best teams. The Wild are currently not that. Three teams in, and we’re already all over the map.

That’s where any reasonable person would probably give up on the whole concept. Gentle reader, I am not that reasonable person. We’re just getting started.

Going back a few years, we get to the 2015 Islanders, who lost to the Capitals who lost to the Rangers who lost to the Lightning who lost to the Blackhawks. That one nearly pulls off the opposite of this year’s Penguins scenario, as the first three series were all seven-gamers. Alas, the final only went six.

Next comes a three-year run of dominance by the Atlantic division, who give us the 2014 Red Wings, 2013 Canadiens and 2012 Bruins. Skip a few years and you get to the only repeat winner of the cap era, as the Bruins show up again in 2008.

Other cap era teams include the 2006 Stars, the 2009 Blues, the 2010 Senators, the 2011 Coyotes and our first team that no longer exists: the 2007 Thrashers, who lost to the Rangers who lost to the Sabres who lost to Senators who lost to the Ducks. Considering that Atlanta team was also swept in four straight and was making the only playoff appearance in Thrashers history, and it might well stand as the single worst example of the ultimate loser phenomenon ever. You know, until this year’s Penguins.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sharks vs. Blues: Which franchise holds the crown for making its fans miserable?

We may be just a few days away from deciding the most important title in the NHL.

No, not “Stanley Cup champion.” Those come and go. This is something bigger and more enduring. We’re talking about the title of the most miserable franchise in the entire league. Which team has done the most to torture its fan base over the years?

For a long time, there was a fairly easy answer. It was the Washington Capitals, a franchise that had built a reputation for finding new and exciting ways to raise expectations and then brutally crush them. Whether it was blowing 3-1 series leads, or losing quadruple overtime game sevens, or winning Presidents’ Trophies only to lose to a hot goalie or to the Penguins or to a hot goalie on the Penguins, the Capitals were the undisputed kings of hockey misery.

But then last year, it all came crashing down. They actually went out and won a Stanley Cup. It was confusing and even a little frightening. And it left the hockey world wondering: Which team has the best claim to the vacated throne?

The Canucks certainly have a strong case, one bolstered by nearly a half-decade without a title that includes two heart-breaking Game 7 losses in the final. The Sabres would be right there with them, with a Cup-losing goal that shouldn’t have counted highlighting their resume. The Maple Leafs could be in the mix too since their last Cup came before most of today’s fans were alive. Maybe you work in some consideration for fans in places like Winnipeg, Minnesota or Ottawa.

But the two teams that have to be near the top of just about any list are the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks. Those two teams have spent the last few decades doing what miserable teams do: Being pretty good just about every season, convincing their weary fan base that this just might be the year and then having something horrible happen to crush those hopes and dreams.

As a lifelong Maple Leafs fan, I know a thing or two about misery. And I think there’s a strong case to be made that when it comes to taking over the Capitals’ crown, the Sharks and the Blues are the two best candidates we have. But which one should earn the honors? That’s a tough call. As we wait for the two teams to face off in Game Six of the Western Conference final, let’s compare their cases in a head-to-head battle with even bigger stakes.

How long are we talking about?

True misery isn’t a short-term game, but a slow drip that builds over time. It’s not about a moment or a series or even a season. We’re looking for decades here.

The Sharks: San Jose entered the league as an expansion team (sort of) back in 1991, which doesn’t seem like all that long ago to some of us but actually puts the Sharks right around the middle of the current league in terms of longevity in their market. We are all so old.

They were historically awful for their first two years. But when you’re talking about their history of misery, you’re really starting the clock right around 2001, when they crack the 90-point mark for the first time and start heading into the postseason with expectations. That kicks off a long run of regular season success that’s still going to this day, with only two playoff misses in nearly two decades. But of course, no Cup.

The Blues: The Blues came into the league in the 1967 expansion and were the first quasi-success story among the half-dozen new teams. They won the all-expansion West Division in each of its first three years, earning trips to the Cup final each time but never winning. They didn’t have much success in the 1970s but had turned things around by the start of the 1980s.

That’s when the Blues really became the Blues – which is to say, a perfectly respectable regular season team that never seemed to do all that much in the playoffs. From 1979-80 through to the 2005 lockout, the Blues made the playoffs every year. That’s 25 straight seasons, the same as what the Red Wings pulled off in their much-hyped streak. And yet I’m guessing some of you may have never even heard of the Blues streak because it didn’t deliver any Cups or even any final appearances and only two trips out of the second round. The St. Louis Blues: Just kind of there™.

Misery edge: This one’s a pretty easy call as (furiously punches numbers into his calculator) 52 years is more than 28. The Sharks’ case here is that they may have had more seasons with serious expectations; they’ve had nine 100+ point seasons since 2001, compared to eight for the Blues since 1980. But St. Louis still takes this one.

Signature heart-breaking moment

Every truly miserable fan base has a few of those plays that they still can’t watch without wanting to whip the remote through the TV.

The Sharks: This ends up being a tougher call than you might think, for reasons we’ll get to down below. But for sheer hands-over-head disbelief, it’s hard to beat the way they were eliminated by the Canucks in the 2011 conference final.

That’s just the hockey gods toying with you right there.

The Blues: It’s the opening round of the 2000 playoffs and the Blues have just captured their first and only Presidents’ Trophy. They’re heavy favorites over the eighth-seeded Sharks, but the underdogs have stretched the series to a seventh game. And then, with seconds left in the first period in front of 19,000 stunned fans, this happens:

That ends up being the winning goal and the best season in franchise history ends in Round 1.

Misery edge: For creativity, it’s the Sharks for sure. But for actual psyche-scarring misery, the Blues get the nod here.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Grab Bag: Not another replay review

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Oh god we have to talk about expanded replay again don't we?
- The best way to react to a waved-off goal
- The week's three comedy stars introduce a new culinary term
- An obscure player who committed mid-game murder
- And a look back at the immediate aftermath of the craziest brawl in NHL history

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Puck Soup: No glove, no love

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We break down last night's blown OT call
- The Bruins on the verge of sweeping the Hurricanes
- An NBA-inspired media meltdown
- Ralph Krueger takes over the Sabres
- What's the hockey equivalent to the Bret Hart/Tom Magee match?
- I put my undefeated quiz streak on the line
- And lots more...

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Which of the 15 draft lottery teams should consider trading their picks?

There are two annual traditions when it comes to the lottery picks in the NHL draft. The first is that fans and media get very excited about the possibility of at least a few of those picks being traded, either in the weeks leading up to the big day or (even better) in dramatic draft floor blockbusters. Trade rumors are catnip for all of us, so we come up with all sorts of scenarios and possibilities and argue back and forth over which ones are the most likely to turn into reality.

The second tradition is that just about none of those rumored trades ever actually happen.

That’s the reality of the modern NHL, where trading is a dying art at the best of times and teams have been taught to treat picks in the top half of the first round like gold. This is a league where young talent is more important than ever before, and the best way to get it is to hold onto those precious picks.

But while it’s exceedingly rare to see a high pick get traded in between the lottery and the draft, it’s not unheard of. It happened in 2017, when the Rangers got the Coyotes’ seventh-overall pick for Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan. The Bruins acquired the 13th and 15th pick back in 2015 in separate deals involving Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton, although that didn’t work out great for them in the end. And there was the big draft floor deal in 2013 that sent Cory Schneider to the Devils for the ninth-overall pick, leading to the best Gary Bettman trade announcement ever.

But high picks being traded in advance remains a rarity, and trades involving the very top picks are all but extinct. We hear the rumors every year, but they almost never come true.

Well, maybe that’s because NHL teams just need a little bit of encouragement. So today, let’s make the case for each of the 15 lottery teams to trade their pick for immediate help. We’re not interested in seeing teams shuffle picks around to move up or down a few spots – we want to see a bold move by a team looking to get better right now by swapping their choice for veteran reinforcements. And since most of these teams have plenty of room for improvement, that should give us at least a chance to make a decent case.

Can we pull it off? It’s going to be easier for some teams than others, but let’s see what we can do. We’ll work our way down from the worst of the lottery picks to the top of the draft.

#15 – Montreal Canadiens

The case for a trade: We’ll start with what should be, in theory, the easiest trade to sell you on, if only because it would involve the least valuable of the lottery picks. And the case here is a relatively straightforward one: The Habs are pretty good, and should be focused on getting better right now instead of waiting around for some middling first-rounder to make his NHL debut a few years down the road. After all, you don’t swallow big-dollar contracts for 30-something stars like Shea Weber and Carey Price without taking on at least some sense of urgency.

If you prefer a more positive spin, we could remind you that the 2017 Lightning barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and then went to the conference final in 2018, while the 2018 Blues barely missed the playoffs with 94 points and are in the conference final right now. Well, the 2019 Habs barely missed the playoffs with 96 points. They may not be as far from contending as you think they are.

Is it convincing?: It’s not a bad start. (And fair warning, if you’re already rolling your eyes at the thought of a team like Montreal even considering this sort of deal, you may just want to bail on the rest of this piece.)

The pessimist view is that Montreal isn’t as close to contending as their 2018-19 season suggests, and still have to get past Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, plus a potentially improved Florida team. But assuming that Marc Bergevin thinks he already has a solid foundation in place here, it might be worth it for him to find out what he could get if he dangled that 15th pick.

#14 – Arizona Coyotes

The case for a trade: It looks a lot like the Canadiens – good team, already close, so worry about making the leap right now instead of stockpiling another prospect you won’t see for a few years.

Is it convincing?: If anything, it’s a better case than Montreal’s. The Coyotes haven’t been to the playoffs since 2012, and you’d have to imagine that ownership is watching what’s happening in Carolina these days and thinking “Why not us?”

On top of that, remember that the Coyotes are one of the few teams that’s actually pulled off this sort of move before, having dealt that seventh-overall pick for veteran help a few years ago. I’m not sure if that makes a move more likely (because they’ve shown they’re willing to do it) or less likely (because it didn’t necessarily work last time). But the idea is at least in play.

#13 – Florida Panthers

The case for a trade: And here’s the third of our three “decent teams that might want to win right now” entries. Except this time, we know that there’s no “might” about it. Dale Tallon has all but called his shot for this offseason, and you have to figure that Joel Quenneville didn’t choose the Panthers because he was in the mood for a lengthy rebuild. The Panthers want to get better right now, and anything that gets them there should be on the table.

Is it convincing?: Sure. The only question is whether trading a first is the Panthers’ best path to immediate help. They may prefer to wait and see how free agency shakes out, and if so then this year’s pick will be out of play (and next year’s probably goes in). But the Panthers have a history of at least talking about moving much higher picks than this one, so this is a situation worth watching.

#12 – Minnesota Wild

The case for a trade: They looked good at times during the season and only missed the playoffs by 10 points, which isn’t insurmountable. With a veteran roster and a new-ish GM who hasn’t really put his stamp on the team just yet, they might decide that immediate help would get them back to the postseason.

Is it convincing?: Lord no. The Wild desperately need to start restocking the system and looking down the road. We can scratch this one off the list.

#11 – Philadelphia Flyers

The case for a trade: Are the Flyers rebuilding? They’ve never had that bottom-out season, but they also haven’t been to the second round in seven years. They seemed to buying into the patient approach, right up until their patient GM was fired for being too patient. They’ve changed coaches twice and remade the front office in the last year, and teams don’t usually do that if they’re planning to stay the course.

Is it convincing?: There has to be at least a part of the Flyers’ brain trust that sees division rivals like the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Islanders having success and thinks “on paper, we’re at least close to those guys.” Still, this feels like a team that would be better off just banking a solid prospect and then seeing where the Carter Hart era takes them.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

In a copycat league, what lessons can we learn from the four conference finalists?

We often hear about how the NHL is a copycat league. A few teams do well and everyone else decides to try to be just like them. Then somebody new comes along, has success with a different approach and the entire league pivots and goes chasing after that. NHL GMs who’ve been tasked with building a Cup contender often end up reminding you of the flustered student in the back row desperately trying to copy off of the smart kid’s paper.

Now that we’re down to four teams left in this year’s playoffs, can we figure out what the league might be about to learn? Maybe, because when you look at the final four as a group, there are some similarities that stand out. Today, let’s look through a half-dozen lessons you might learn from this year’s conference finalists – you know, if you happened to be the copycat type.

Lesson No. 1: Be bold when it comes to coaching changes

Making a coaching change can’t be fun for a GM. You never like to see anyone lose their job, especially when they’ve worked hard for your organization over the years. Mix in an owner who might not appreciate paying somebody not to work and you can understand why a GM might prefer the status quo.

But as this year’s final four has shown, sometimes it pays to pull the trigger. The most obvious example was in St. Louis, where making the change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube may have saved their season. At the time the move was made, you could understand why Doug Armstrong may have hesitated. After all, Yeo had only been given one full season behind the bench and it’s not like Berube’s resume made him an obvious upgrade. Armstrong probably could have talked himself into waiting another month or two, or maybe even the whole season. But he didn’t and the Blues were eventually rewarded.

The Hurricanes also have a first-year head coach and the change came under odd circumstances. Technically, they didn’t fire Bill Peters; he exercised an out clause in his contract. But the team didn’t exactly seem like they were all that eager to keep him, with owner Tom Dundon expressing disappointment at the team’s record, acknowledging that he was willing to be “pretty flexible” in regards to whatever decision Peters made. When Peters left for Calgary, the promotion of rookie head coach Rod Brind’Amour turned out to be a near-perfect fit for a young team looking to find the next level.

Boston and San Jose have had more recent stability behind the bench, but both have seen good results after making changes that took some courage. The Sharks moved on from Todd McLellan in 2015 after the first playoff miss of his career and then watched him get snapped up by a division rival within weeks, but Peter DeBoer has done well in four seasons since. And the Bruins took plenty of heat for firing Claude Julien midway through the 2016-17 season and replacing him with little-known assistant Bruce Cassidy, especially when the Habs hired him just one week later. But Cassidy has done a fantastic job ever since.

Who could learn from them: I know you all want me to say Toronto here, but it seems like it’s one season too early to really dig into that possibility. Rather than call for any specific coach’s job, I’ll just point out that there are seven teams in the league who’ve had the same coach since the 2015 offseason, and only one – the Sharks – made it out of the first round. Tampa, Winnipeg, Nashville and Toronto all went out early, while New Jersey and Detroit didn’t even make it in.

Lesson No. 2: Don’t be afraid to take a big swing on the trade market, especially in the offseason

One of the early themes of the 2019 playoffs was the positive impact that a team could gain from being active at the trade deadline, as big movers like the Golden Knights and Blue Jackets started strong. But with those teams out, that narrative has faded. Instead, maybe we should be talking about summer blockbusters, since three of these teams made big trades in the 2018 offseason.

The biggest was the Sharks acquiring Erik Karlsson in a move that’s paid off nicely now that he’s healthy enough to play. The Hurricanes pulled off the Dougie Hamilton blockbuster with the Flames and also sent Jeff Skinner to the Sabres, while the Blues pulled off the Ryan O’Reilly deal (not to mention Brayden Schenn the summer before). Those were four very different types of deals, but they all took some guts to pull off and all of them are big parts of why these teams are where they are today.

The outlier here is Don Sweeney and the Bruins. He’s not much of a trader – he’s been on the job for four years and his NHL Trade Tracker entry still doesn’t have a second page. And after a busy first offseason in which he made deals featuring names like Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic and Martin Jones, he’s basically taken summers off. He’s more of a deadline guy, but that’s paid off for Boston, as the additions of Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson have helped.

Who could learn from them: Any GM who prefers to sit on their hands and mumble about how making big trades is just too hard, which is to say most of today’s GMs. That could even include David Poile in Nashville, an aggressive trader who somewhat surprisingly hasn’t made a big summer move since the P.K. Subban trade almost three years ago.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

Grab Bag: Terrible offside reviews, missed head shots, injured goalies and another round of playoff outrage

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- We need another playoff outrage lightning round, as we deal with offside review, injured goalies, and Brad Marchand being a jerk
- A quick request to media covering the playoffs from the press box
- An obscure player or two
- The week's three comedy stars, where (almost) everyone is excited about the Blues
- And a YouTube breakdown of a 24-year-old the fake injury that helped kill a franchise and changed the rulebook

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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Puck Soup: Yet another replay review disaster

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Avalanche get screwed by the terrible offside review rule
- In hindsight, were the Blue Jackets right to go all-in?
- Thoughts on Charlie McAvoy's hit and suspension
- More officiating controversies from around the league
- An interview with actor Bill Camp
- Ken Holland is hired in Edmonton
- Greg tries to stump me with an on-the-spot quiz about the 1992 Jays, which, come on
- Brad Marchand acts like a jerk, again
- Our conference final picks, and lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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Building a roster for the 2019 Playoff Disappointment Team

The first two rounds of the playoffs are over, and we’ve made it through one of the most unpredictable and outright shocking months of postseason action we’ve ever seen. Twelve teams are out and four more are on to the conference final, just eight wins away from the sport’s ultimate prize. So you know what time it is now.

No, not time to celebrate the accomplishments of the winners. Ew. Is this your first day here?

No, we’re hockey fans, so we’re going to do what we do best: Point and yell “SHAME” at those who have displeased us. So today, let’s assemble a full roster’s worth of playoff disappointment. These are the players who didn’t live up to expectations once the postseason started, and may now be part of the reason their team isn’t playing anymore.

And why did they let us down? (Ignores that one guy with a pocket protector shouting “Small sample size!”) That’s right – they didn’t want it bad enough. Try harder next time, guys, and everything will work out fine. Consider it a lesson learned.

Like all great teams, we’ll build from the net out. Please welcome your 2019 All Playoff Disappointment Team.

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning: Spoiler alert – Vasilevskiy won’t be the only Lightning player to show up on this list. And in a sense, that should shield him from some criticism, since a goalie is only as good as the team in front of him. But the series between the Lightning and Blue Jackets was closer than you probably remember it, and an extra save here or there could have at least extended it, if not changed the outcome. The Lightning never seemed to get that save. Put it this way: So far, 17 goalies have started at least one playoff game, and 16 of them have posted a save percentage over .900. The 17th is Vasilevskiy, with a downright ugly .856.

Matt Murray, Penguins: The story of the Islanders’ surprising sweep over the Penguins was how Pittsburgh just couldn’t ever seem to hold any momentum. They’d score a big goal, you’d think “OK, here we go,” and then the Islanders would come right back down and score almost immediately. Those goals weren’t always Murray’s fault, but some sure were, and the Penguins were always going to need something more than .906 goaltending to get past Robin Lehner and the Islanders.

Missed the cut: Martin Jones looked like he had a spot on this team all wrapped up after the first week, but he’s been fantastic ever since. Pekka Rinne has a stronger case, and he certainly didn’t get that redemption he was looking for after last year’s disastrous finish. But he had three games where he was .950 or better, including 49 saves in the OT loss that ended the Predators’ season. And unlike Murray or Vasilevskiy, at least he won a game. Marc-Andre Fleury did too, and would have won a series if the Knights could kill off a penalty.


First pair

Kris Letang, Penguins: You can’t accuse him of not showing up, as he averaged over 27 minutes a game. But in a series where the Penguins always seemed one goal away from turning things around, their only high-scoring defenseman managed just one assist. Worse, he was front and center on several key goals against, as his aggressive style seemed to backfire just about every time. As Letang himself pointed out, you can’t just tell an offensive defenseman not to make mistakes. But when your style is high risk/high reward, sometimes you wind up high on the list of goats.

Jacob Trouba, Jets: In what could be his last games in a Jets uniform, Trouba had a rough series against the Blues. His offense dried up, to the tune of just one assist in six games. But his most memorable moment came in his own end, where a disastrous decision may have been the series turning point.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A celebration of goaltenders allowing really terrible goals

I’ve always been fascinated by bad goals. You know the kind – the ones where the puck goes in, you immediately start swearing at your TV either out of frustration or amazement, and we get an extended zoom-in on the goaltender while his teammates all turn and skate away in disgust without even acknowledging he exists.

Bad goals have always been a part of hockey, but if anything they’ve become even more interesting over the course of the Dead Puck era. An entire generation of defense-first coaches have worked to squeeze the offense out of the sport, desperately trying to turn every game into a 2-1 slog of blocked shots and neutral zone turnovers. And they’ve mostly succeeded. But every now and then, all that planning goes out the window because some puck that barely seemed worth paying attention to suddenly winds up in the back of the net.

We almost got one for the ages last week in Boston. With the Bruins and Blue Jackets fighting through a crucial overtime, a harmless looking dump-in from center ice suddenly took an unexpected bounce and very nearly slipped past Sergei Bobrovsky. Only a lunging glove save kept the Blue Jackets goalie from being on every highlight reel for the next decade.

So close. But don’t worry, bad goal fans. There’s still lots of playoffs left to add a few entries to the list. It’s only a matter of time.

In the meantime, let’s get organized. Here are 10 types of terrible goals that are all sorts of fun to see, as long as you’re not a goaltender.

Type 1: The long-distance bouncer

This is the one that nearly got Bobrovsky. Somebody lobs one in from center ice, it takes a few bounces, and suddenly everyone realizes that the goalie is in trouble.

Victims of the long-distance bouncer include Sebastien Caron and Cam Talbot, but they’re not alone; we see one of these a few times a season. And of course, there’s the most famous example of them all, the one you were probably thinking about as soon as you saw the headline on this post …

Here’s the thing: These shots are way tougher than they look. I’m not even entirely convinced we should call them bad goals. Pucks aren’t designed to bounce in a predictable way, and if you can land one just right in front of a goalie, they basically have no choice but to get as big as they can and hope the hockey gods are on their side. And every now and then, they’re not.

Put it this way: There’s no save that has a higher degree of difficulty and a lower level of sympathy if you fail. We don’t expect goalies to be able to adjust and make saves on shots that were deflected by a skate or a stick right in front of them. But when the ice is doing the deflecting, there’s no mercy.

If I was in the NHL, I’d be taking these shots all the time. I’d be staying late and practicing them, trying to get them to land in just the right spot and with just enough spin. Honestly, it might be my shootout move.

Type 2: The long-distance boomer

The more-advanced cousin of our first type of bad goal, this one looks like a much tougher save even though it probably shouldn’t be. There’s no bounce or deflection here, just a guy winding up from long range and straight-up drilling it.

We can get into a bit of a gray area here; personally, I’d argue that Steve Yzerman’s laser beam winner against Jon Casey back in 1996 wasn’t a bad goal at all, but rather one of the greatest shots in hockey history. But Owen Nolan’s bomb from center ice a few years later? Yeah, that’s a bad goal.

Dan Cloutier never really lived down giving up a crucial playoff goal to Nicklas Lidstrom back in 2002, although that one’s on the borderline of Type 1 and Type 2 because Lidstrom skipped it. Other Canucks goalies haven’t had that excuse, although at least that one didn’t come in the playoffs. But they can happen to the best of them and even show up in the middle of some of the great goaltending runs of all-time.

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Monday, May 6, 2019

What was the most unexpected final four in NHL playoff history?

It’s​ been the year​ of​ the​ wildcard​ in​ the​ NHL playoffs.​ The Hurricanes are​ already through to​ the​ conference final, having​​ knocked off the Metro’s top two seeds along the way. The Dallas Stars have a chance to head to the Western final if they can win tomorrow night’s Game 7. And the Blue Jackets and Avalanche are still alive in their quests to win divisions they aren’t even in.

It’s all added up to a postseason that’s been, to borrow a technical hockey term that the insiders use, “weird-ass.” And if all four wildcard teams make it through to the conference finals, it would be safe to call this year the most unpredictable postseason we’ve ever seen. It wouldn’t even be all that close.

But even if a few of the favorites survive, this season will still have a solid claim to the “most unpredictable” crown. Today, let’s take a look back through the history books and try to figure out which other seasons are in the running.

There are a few ways you could do this, including just trying to remember which years felt the most surprising. But that’s tricky because hockey fans are good at fooling ourselves into thinking we knew more than we did. Instead, let’s stick with something objective.

I went back through all the postseasons since the league went to a full sixteen-team format in 1979-80 and looked at where each of the final four teams finished in their conference standings. If they had the best record, they get one point. The second best is two, down through to the team with the eighth-best record among playoff teams in the conference. Add those four scores up and you’ve got a pretty decent idea of just how unlikely that season’s conference finalists were.

The highest possible score would be 30, from two sevens and two eights. If all this year’s wildcards make it through, that would give this season an unpredictability score of 29. (The Stars were a wildcard but actually had the sixth-best record in the West, ahead of Vegas.) It won’t surprise you to know that that would be the highest score ever by a wide margin. But what if the three remaining favorites all make it through? That drops us down to a seven (Carolina), five (St. Louis) and a pair of twos (Boston and San Jose), for a total of 16. Still not bad.

Not bad, but not the best. I could find ten seasons that could beat that total, which seems like a good place to draw the line. Let’s revisit some of those other seasons that left us scratching our heads and trashing our brackets, as we work our way up to the highest score.

1988-89

The final four: Calgary (1), Chicago (8), Montreal (1), Philadelphia (7), giving us a total of 17 points.

The path there: This was a weird year, with two top seeds that finished miles ahead of the pack and that everyone expected to see in the conference final and then two longshots who both made unexpected runs. The Flyers’ push wasn’t all that shocking; they’d been a decent team during the season and only had to navigate a lukewarm Patrick Division and they’d been to the Cup final in 1985 and 1987. But the Hawks had finished with just 66 points before knocking off the Wings and Blues to win the typically terrible Norris.

Fair warning: For reasons I’m not quite clear on, the Hawks show up in these seasons a lot.

The epilogue: Do you believe in miracles? No? Good, because the Flames and Canadiens both advanced, giving us a rare Cup final between the league’s two top teams. The Flames won that one in six.

2009-10

The final four: San Jose (1), Chicago (2), Philadelphia (7) and Montreal (8), for a total of 18 points.

The path there: This might have been one of the first seasons that popped into your mind when you saw the premise for this piece. And rightly so, since it’s the only season (until maybe this year) when one conference saw its two worst playoff teams by regular season record meet in the conference final. The Flyers and Habs were both big underdogs who wrote stunning playoff stories, Montreal on the strength of Jaroslav Halak’s red-hot goaltending and Philadelphia by coming back from down 3-0 to stun the Bruins.

Unfortunately for our rankings, while all that was going on the West played out exactly as expected, with the top two teams rolling through the early rounds. Therefore, this season won’t rank as high on our list as it probably deserves to.

The epilogue: Halak’s magic dried up and the Flyers won the battle of the underdogs. But they couldn’t finish the story against the Hawks, who swept the Sharks and then ended their 49-year Cup drought with Patrick Kane’s overtime winner. It was a fittingly weird end to an unpredictable postseason.

1991-92

The final four: Pittsburgh (4), Boston (6), Chicago (3) and Edmonton (6), for a total of 19 points.

The path there: This one looks more surprising on paper than it felt at the time. The Bruins/Penguins conference final was a rematch of the year before, so not exactly a shocker there. The Oilers had won five of the last eight Cups, so even in the post-Gretzky era, it wasn’t that stunning to see them advance. And the Hawks were a decent enough team.

Still, the 1992 postseason marked the first time in the 16-team era that neither conference sent a top-two team to the final four. And even in the pre-loser point days, it was at least a little bit odd to see that none of the four finalists even cracked 90 points.

The epilogue: This may have been the worst final four of all time. Both conference finals ended in sweeps, and then the final did too, with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins knocking off the Hawks to win their second straight Cup.

1981-82

The final four: Vancouver (4), Chicago (7), the Islanders (1) and Quebec (7), a total of 19 points.

The path there: It was the Kings who did the heavy lifting here, knocking out the powerhouse Oilers in the first round thanks to the Miracle on Manchester. That opened a path for the 77-point Canucks, who lost just once while knocking out the Flames and Kings. The Nordiques knocked off the heavily favored Habs and then survived the Bruins, while the top-seeded Islanders handled their business. Meanwhile, the 72-point Hawks only had to escape the Norris, which they did by knocking off the North Stars and Blues.

The epilogue: This was the mid-dynasty Islanders of Al Arbour, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Bryan Trottier, so when they arrived in the conference finals to find all these scrappy underdogs waiting for them, they probably weren’t too worried. They shouldn’t have been; they didn’t lose a game the rest of the way while rolling to their third straight Cup.

2005-06

The final four: Anaheim (6), Edmonton (8), Carolina (2) and Buffalo (3), giving us another 19-point total.

The path there: This is another memorable postseason that you might expect to have higher on the list. You could make a case that it should be, since the Sabres were technically the four-seed in the East because of the three-division format. But they had the conference’s third-best record, so they earn three points towards our total. And the Hurricanes only contribute two, because while most fans seem to remember their Cup win being a big surprise, they were actually a really good team that year, racking up 112 points.

But the real action was in the West, where the Oilers shocked the 124-point Wings in a first-round in which all four underdogs advanced. If you wanted to call the 2006 West the craziest playoff year that any one conference has ever seen, I wouldn’t argue with you. But the East was relatively straightforward, so they bring down the overall total.

The epilogue: The Oilers dispatched the Ducks fairly quickly, while the Hurricanes barely held off the Sabres. That left us with a Carolina/Edmonton final that gave us one of the worst-timed injuries ever, Gary Bettman’s most awkward Cup handoff and the start of a decade of darkness.

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Friday, May 3, 2019

Grab Bag: In defense of Brad Marchand, pucks in the netting and Gary Bettman’s 2000 replay thoughts

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I try to think of a dozen nice things to say about Brad Marchand
- Thoughts on last night's puck-in-the-netting review controversy
- An obscure player with quite the Game Seven resume
- The week's three comedy stars, featuring one of the most brutal tweets of all time
- And we got back nearly 20 years to hear a young Gary Bettman make the case against more replay

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Puck Soup: Sucker punches, dives and other playoff fun

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The Hurricanes are on the verge of a trip to the conference final
- Should Brad Marchand have been suspended?
- The good and bad of this year's NHL award nominations
- An interview with LA Kings voice and potential new Jeopardy host Alex Faust
- How big a problem is diving?
- We get to react in real time to breaking news in Vegas and women's hockey
- Gary Bettman's latest public appearance
- Remembering Jason Botchford
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

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





Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Hart Trophy should be based on both the regular season and the playoffs (so let's repossess a few trophies)

The​ NHL revealed the​ three​ finalists​ for​ the​ Hart​ Trophy for​ league MVP on​ Sunday, and there​ were​ no major surprises.​​ The honors went to Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, with everyone expecting that Kucherov will end up as the winner.

Given how voters typically treat the award, those finalists seem about right. It’s a bit of a surprise to see McDavid in the final three since his team didn’t make the playoffs, which seems to be a deal-breaker for many voters. But I had all three on my ballot, along with Johnny Gaudreau and Patrick Kane. So sure, Kucherov, Crosby and McDavid are worthy picks.

But they have something else in common: None of them won a playoff round this year. In fact, none of them even won a game.

That’s apparently the first time that’s ever happened, but it’s not far off from last year, when the top three were Nathan MacKinnon, Anze Kopitar and eventual winner Taylor Hall. None of them made it out of the first round either, as they combined for a grand total of three playoff wins. Go back through the history of the award, and this sort of thing isn’t rare. That’s because the voting is done immediately after the regular season ends, before we know how the playoffs turn out. And often, they don’t turn out very well for the Hart finalists.

Is that a problem? Maybe not, but it highlights an oddity about how we vote for the Hart. Modern voters have apparently decided that only players who make the postseason can ever be the league’s move valuable player; Mario Lemieux in 1988 was the last non-playoff participant to take home the trophy, and even being a finalist is exceedingly rare. That’s because, as it’s been explained to me, the postseason is what matters. You can rack up all the numbers you want, but if they don’t get your team into the playoffs, it was all meaningless.

But then we do the voting before the first round starts, when we have no idea if that all-important playoff berth will amount to anything. It’s a weird place to draw the line. Kucherov didn’t just have a quiet playoffs, after all, with no goals and only two points – he actively hurt his team by taking a suspension for a must-win game. And yet he’s almost certainly going to run away with the Hart voting, while guys like Kane and McDavid get left off many ballots entirely because we’re told that the playoffs are all that matter.

It’s not wrong, necessarily. Just strange. Pick a lane, you know?

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