Monday, May 25, 2020

Weekend power rankings: A rerun from 1980

Editor’s note: Due to the ongoing pause to the NHL season, we are once again dipping into the archives to air a Weekend Rankings rerun from a previous season. Please enjoy this week’s power rankings, which originally ran on Monday, Jan. 7, 1980.

The Philadelphia Flyers played last night, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, they didn’t lose.

Oh wait, you have heard that one. In fact, you’ve heard it for nearly three straight months, because the Flyers haven’t lost since their second game of the season. That’s 35 in a row, if you’re keeping track.

You figured that if the streak was ever going to end, last night would be the night. The Flyers were five games into their road trip as they prepared to face the Sabres, the league’s second-best team. With six wins in their last eight games, Buffalo has started to pull away in the Adams. Add in the extra motivation of having lost to many of these same Flyers in the Stanley Cup final just a few years ago, you would think that if anyone could end the streak, it would be Buffalo.

Nope. Bill Barber broke a third-period tie, Rick MacLeish added the insurance marker with five minutes left, and the Flyers cruised to a 4-2 final. Ho-hum. Throw another win on the pile.

With 35 straight games without a loss, the Flyers have already shattered the NHL record, set just a few years ago by the Canadiens; that milestone came and went weeks ago. Friday night’s 4-1 win over the Rangers nudged them ahead of 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest undefeated streak in pro sports history. Granted, that Lakers team had to win all those games because the NBA doesn’t have ties, which are a fundamental and immutable part of hockey, but it’s still an impressive feat.

And there’s no end in sight. I mean … what are we even holding the rest of the season for? Just give the Stanley Cup to the Flyers, and let’s be done with it. They’re literally unbeatable.

OK, I’m being a little facetious here – obviously you can’t just shut down an NHL season before it’s finished. But it sure does feel like everyone else is playing for second place at this point. And to make matters worse, there’s no reason to think that the Flyers’ dominance is a one-year phenomenon. Mark my words, there’s a new dynasty on the horizon, and it’s coming straight out of the Patrick Division.

In the meantime, the Flyers cap off their six-game road trip tonight in Minnesota. The North Stars are a good team, but we know how this is going to turn out. It’s going to be a long time before the Flyers lose another game this year. Or maybe that should be if they lose another game.

On to this week’s rankings. Hey, I bet you’ll never guess who’s No. 1.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of Rubik’s Cubes, Pac-Man and taking the Stanley Cup to see Empire Strikes Back.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still adjusting to the new playoff format. After years of having an even dozen teams make the playoffs, the NHL is expanding the format to 16 teams this year. And let’s just come right out and say it: That’s way too many.

Yes, the league went from 17 teams to 21 this season due to the WHA merger. There’s some logic to adding extra playoff spots when you add more teams. But having 12 out of 17 teams make the playoffs meant that 70 percent of the league got in. Now, with 16 out of 21, it’s all the way up to 76 percent. That’s crazy. Yes, you want to get as many teams involved in the playoff race as possible, because that’s how you keep all your markets interested. But there has to be a limit.

I mean, imagine if the league keeps this up. We’re told that further expansion will arrive someday. What are we going to do when there are 24 teams? Or 28? Or, to pick an odd number at random, 31? If you kept the same ratio of playoff teams in a 31-team league, you’d end up inviting 24 teams.

A 24-team postseason. Good lord. Let’s start handing out points for losing too, while we’re at it.

Anyway, the one piece of good news is that at least we got rid of that weird preliminary round where only some of the teams had to face off in shorter series. That was a total crapshoot, and nobody even knew whether it was supposed to count as a real playoff series or not. I won’t miss those.

But yeah, 16 teams are making the playoffs this year. I know it seems like a lot, but we’ll have to get used to it.

5. Chicago Black Hawks (15-13-12, +1 true goals differential*) – They’re barely .500 and they can’t score, but they’re still running away with the Smythe because it’s the worst division in hockey. Hey, at least it won’t be won by a 73-point team like it was last year. Man, the Smythe is terrible. I guess we might as well get used to saying that because some things never change.

4. Montreal Canadiens (18-16-6, +12) – I know, I know, I should show the defending champs more respect. They’ve won four straight Cups, after all. Shouldn’t a dynasty team be the favorites?

Yes, they should, but this isn’t that dynasty team. There’s no Ken Dryden, or Yvan Cournoyer, or Jacques Lemaire. There’s no Scotty Bowman. Another year without Sam Pollock. They’re already on their second coach, after literally giving their first coach ulcers. This isn’t the same team that rolled over everyone for the last half-decade.

They’re still good. Guy Lafleur should get 50 goals, and Steve Shutt might get there too. So could Pierre Larouche. They’ve still got Larry Robinson and new captain, Serge Savard. Rod Langway looks like a future Norris winner that they’ll definitely hold on to. And on the right night, the combo of Mario Tremblay and Rejean Houle can drive a goaltender crazy.

So they deserve some respect, which is why they’re in the top five. Can they win a fifth straight Cup? I guess we can’t count them out. But at the risk of overdoing my Philadelphia love-in, I’d advise Montreal fans to watch tonight’s Flyers/North Stars game, because good luck getting past that team in the playoffs.

3. Boston Bruins (21-11-5, +32) – First-year head coach Fred Creighton continues to do a great job, and seems like the long-term answer behind the bench. But the big story is rookie defenseman Ray Bourque, who’s stepped in as a 19-year-old and already looks like one of the best blueliners in the league. He’s not especially big or physical, so you have to wonder how long he can last in the league. But he can do just about everything else, and it’s not hard to envision him being the guy who brings the Stanley Cup back to Boston.

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