Monday, August 31, 2020

Which NHL team wins the hockey sudoku challenge?

The last few months have been rough, and we’ve all been finding our own ways to cope and stay sane. For me, that’s included stumbling into a weird but apparently thriving online subculture: Watching other people do sudokus.

You remember sudokus. The little boxed number puzzles were a fad years ago; you probably bought a large-print book full of them at the drug store checkout when you realized you needed a gift for your grandparents. Well, it turns out they’re still a thing. And while I’m not very good at actually doing them, it’s oddly soothing to watch polite British dudes solve weird variations, especially when they get overly excited about some breakthrough and then start getting poetic about it.

Unfortunately, because my brain is broken, I eventually started wondering how I could apply all this to hockey.

Among other rules, the point of sudoku is that you have to fit all the numbers into the grid without any duplicates along any line. So here’s my hockey version: What’s the best six-man starting lineup you can make for a given team out of players whose jersey numbers combine to use each digit once and only once?

It should be simple, right? We’ve got 10 digits to work with, zero through nine, and six positions to fill. You need three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie, and you only get credit for what the player did on that team while wearing that number.

The strategy is nice and straightforward: Start with a few stars, fill in the best players you can find based on the numbers you have left, and you’re all set. This should be fun, a nice relaxing diversion we could all probably use right now. Or it will be way harder than it looks and ruin everyone’s day.

As always, I’ll try to polish off about a dozen and then turn the rest of the league over to you.

Edmonton Oilers

I like starting with the Oilers with this sort of thing, because in theory they should be one of the easiest teams to work with. They have a star-studded dynasty from the ’80s and two of the best players of today, so we should be all set. If they turn out to be tougher than expected, that will tell us something.

Let’s start with the first limitation our format hits us with, one you probably figured out already: We can’t have any double numbers. If we can only use the number 9 once in our lineup, that means Wayne Gretzky and his 99 are lost to us. We also lose Mark Messier (11) to the same limitation. So right away, the Oilers drop some obvious candidates.

They don’t lose Connor McDavid, so we can build our team around him and his 97. Or can we? By using up that 9, we’re wiping out Glenn Anderson, not to mention Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Doug Weight and Ryan Smyth. And that 7 cleans out most of the rest of the dynasty in Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri. I still feel like we have to go with McDavid, but man, it’s a costly choice.

We need some representation from those 1980s Cup winners, so I’m going to go ahead and drop in Kevin Lowe and his 4. The other obvious name is Grant Fuhr, whose 31 would cover off two more digits. But let’s hold that thought, because the Oilers are about to teach us another important lesson about this exercise: That 0 is going to be important. With apologies to Neil Sheehy, zero is the only number that can’t yield a single-digit player, so we need to find somebody who wore 10 or 20 or 30 or so on. And there just aren’t a lot of legendary players who did that. If a team has a great 0 option, they’re going to have an advantage.

The Oilers, with apologies to Ilya Bryzgalov, Sébastien Bisaillon and Stuart Skinner, really don’t. I think we have two options here: Use Esa Tikkanen and his 10, or Bill Ranford and his 30, both of which cost us Fuhr. I think we have to go with the Conn Smythe-winning Ranford here, and save that 1 to get us a forward in the teens.

That leaves us with 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 for two forwards and a defenseman, one of which has to be single digits. I think there’s a good candidate there on the blue line in Steve Smith’s 5, leaving us with two spots to fill up front. We can do that with Todd Marchant (26) and Craig Simpson (18), which is … not great? Given everything we had to work with, I feel like it’s not great.

Forwards: Connor McDavid (97), Todd Marchant (26), Craig Simpson (18)

Defense: Kevin Lowe (4), Steve Smith (5)

Goalie: Bill Ranford (30)

There has to be a better Oilers combo out there, and I suspect it involves dropping McDavid and starting with Kurri and Draisaitl. But for now, let’s go with this as our proof-of-concept and move on to another team that should be easier.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins are a team with a history of weird numbers ranging from high to low, so there should be plenty to work with here. But right off the bat, our no-doubles limitation means we lose Mario Lemieux, not to mention the Pittsburgh edition of Coffey and Larry Murphy. The good news is that at least we can use Sidney Crosby.

Or can we? His 87 costs us Jaromir Jagr’s 68 and Evgeni Malkin’s 71. Is that a trade we want to make? Seems like we’d rather have both those guys. Then again, Malkin would cost us Ron Francis, whose 10 seems like it will be our best option for a zero. We haven’t even got past the superstars and it’s already a bit of a mess. Let’s come back to that one.

We do have two solid options in goal, with Tom Barrasso’s 35 or Marc-André Fleury’s 29 both covering off a pair of numbers we’re not using yet. But there’s a problem forming on the blue line. We’re not going to be able to use Kris Letang’s 58 thanks to Crosby or Jagr already claiming the 8, while no doubles means we lose not only Coffey and Murphy but also Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik and Darius Kasparaitis. Even Randy Carlyle’s 25 is lost to either one of our goalie options. Our single-digit options aren’t especially strong either.

This is a mess. At one point, I was seriously considering a lineup with both Pascal Dupuis and Ian Moran. For the Penguins, a team that’s won the Stanley Cup five times. This game is either a lot harder than I thought or I’m bad at it. Either way, I’m filled with regret right now, thanks for asking.

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Puck Soup: The NHL misses its moment

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- On the night that sports stopped, the NHL goes ahead with the games
- What we think of that, and what might come next
- Why I don't want to hear about how you don't politics mixed with your sports
- Plus the Marc-Andre Fleury story, a Leafs trade, a coach firing, a quiz and lots more

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>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

The playoff performer Hall of Fame (for non-Hall-of-Famers)

Ah, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That magical time of year when reputations are made, legacies are written, and superstars become legends.

Of course, it’s also the time of the year when pretty ordinary players can become legends too. That’s one of my favorite parts. For some reason — a knack for the clutch, an abundance of heart, or just the joy of small sample sizes — certain players seem to level up in the postseason. Some were already stars, some were borderline scrubs, but they found a way to elevate their game when it mattered most.

There’s no such thing as the NHL Playoffs Hall of Fame. But there should be. So today, let’s honor those players who took their game to the next level when it mattered most by building a roster’s worth of inductees.

There’s one important criteria for making our squad: The player can’t already be in the real Hall of Fame. Spoiler alert: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr were all really good in the playoffs too. There’s no fun in that. So we’re only looking for playoff heroes who haven’t been inducted into the real Hall. (In the same spirit, we’re also ruling out active players, and recently retired ones who aren’t eligible yet.)

We need 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies, and maybe a few Black Aces along the way. We won’t worry too much about position beyond that, because it’s the playoffs and everyone will do what they need to do to help the team. Let’s remember some guys.

First Line

Barry Pederson
Today, most fans know Pederson as a key piece of one of the most lopsided trades of all-time. He was the guy that the Canucks acquired in 1986 in exchange for both a first-round pick and a young Cam Neely. It’s probably the worst trade in Canucks history.

But there’s a reason that Vancouver gave up so much to get Pederson: He was really good in the playoffs. Like, historically good. In four postseasons from 1982 through 1986, Pederson appeared in 34 playoff games for the Bruins, and he racked up 22 goals and 52 points in those games. That total includes his 1983 run, in which he banked 32 points in 17 games.

All told, Pederson’s lifetime points per game in the playoffs of 1.53 ranks behind only Gretzky and Lemieux among players with 10 games. The next three guys on the list: Mark Messier, Mike Bossy and Orr.

Ironically, injuries and diminished production meant Pederson never played another postseason game after the trade. But he did get his name on the Stanley Cup with the 1991 Penguins, along with our next guy…

Kevin Stevens
If you run a list of the top 40 postseasons by points scored, it won’t surprise you to see a lot of names show up multiple times. Gretzky is there six times. Messier has four. Lemieux, somewhat surprisingly, only has two. Jari Kurri, Doug Gilmour and Bryan Trottier show up a few times each.

But only one player who isn’t in the Hall of Fame manages the feat, and that’s Stevens. And that’s because in the early 90’s, Stevens was a freaking beast. He had 33 points in the Pens’ first Cup run in 1991, then followed it up with 28 more in 1992. More impressive, his 30 goals in those two years ties him with Gretzky for the most in consecutive postseasons by anyone other than Bossy, Kurri or Lemieux.

He was on his way to a three-peat, with 16 points through 12 games in 1993, when tragedy struck. A brutal fluke injury against the Islanders ended his season and, indirectly, his career as in impact player. It might be hyperbole to say it cost the Penguins a third straight Cup, but I’m not entirely convinced it would be wrong. Stevens was that good.

Reggie Leach
He has to be on the team, because it’s possible that nobody ever had a playoff run quite like Leach’s masterpiece back in 1976. It’s not easy to follow up a 61-goal season by finding another gear in the playoffs, but that’s what Leach did when he set an all-time record with 19 playoff goals that year, a mark that still hasn’t been beaten to this day – guys like Gretzky, Bossy and Lemieux cleared 15 in a postseason, but never topped Leach’s mark. It wasn’t quite enough to lead the Flyers to a third straight Cup, but it did earn Leach the Conn Smythe, making him the only non-goalie from a losing team to ever win it.

Leach had some other solid postseason runs, including 16 points in 1980, so he wasn’t a one-hit wonder in the same way as some other guys we’ll meet. But man, his biggest hit was an all-timer.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

DGB vs. Mirtle: Are the Canucks now "Canada's Team"?

Like many great stories here at The Athletic, this all started with a Twitter argument.

One of us has a soft spot for the annual conversation over whether or not the last remaining NHL team from Canada — in this case, the Vancouver Canucks — should be deemed “Canada’s Team” and gain the resulting bandwagon fans.

The other person, however, thinks this is really dumb.

When we put the question to a poll on social media, meanwhile, the audience was split, nearly 50-50.

To settle this polarizing, important debate once and for all, we bring you this.

Mirtle: So, Sean, the second round has started and again in this country we’re down to one last hope in the playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks. Not a lot of confusion over who people should be cheering for, given there’s only one choice for Canada’s Team. Go Canucks! Hope they can end the 27-year drought.

McIndoe: James.

Mirtle: It’s been so long! Remember Montreal back in 1993? I was on a Grade 7 graduation field trip to Big Bar Ranch during that series. Ride a horse during the day, watch Kelly Hrudey let in some goals at night. That’s … a long time ago. So we need the Cup to come home, no? Give millennials something to get excited about?

OK, so I’m going a bit overboard. But there’s this great resistance to the idea of “Canada’s Team” among hockey fans in general that I think is a little unfair. It’s more something for casual fans to rally behind, the idea that there’s a city from this country still involved in the tournament.

It’s not like Canadian teams are in the finals all the time like in the ’80s — I think some fans just want something to care about once their team is eliminated. (Usually very early.)

McIndoe: Anyone who’s been reading me over the years knows where I’m going to go on this, but let’s be clear: Unless it’s an Olympics or world juniors, there’s no such thing as “Canada’s Team.”

Yes, there’s a drought. We all know about it. And we all want to see it end. But here’s the thing — we only want to see our team be the one to end it. That team (and city and fan base) will be the one to get all the bragging rights. Why should I want the Canucks and their fans to have all that fun?

Mirtle: Because the percentage of hockey fans that have that deep a level of animosity for teams on the other side of the country is pretty small? I mean, when your team (the Leafs) goes out early, do you just spite watch the rest of the tournament? There’s no joy left? Who do you root for?

I can see not wanting to get behind, say, the Senators, but Vancouver? That’s not a direct rival! And you’ve been there on vacation with your family without using a passport and, hey, good for them. You’d rather see Dallas win again than a team in Canada? That feels … weird.

McIndoe: First of all, never underestimate the animosity that hockey fans are capable of. We’re a very bitter and jaded bunch. We want our team to win, sure, but we also know that in a 31-team league, the odds of that are slim. So we want as many other fans as possible to be as sad as we are. Yeah, my team lost, but so did yours, so we all get to be miserable together.

It’s possible I’m projecting here. But I don’t think I’m alone.

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Monday, August 24, 2020

In a copycat NHL, 8 lessons to learn from the 8 remaining teams

The NHL is a copycat league.

We know that, because we hear it all the time. That’s especially true around playoff time, as the list of eliminations grows and those teams try to figure out what went wrong. Inevitably, as we narrow down the field and eventually crown a champion, everyone comes up with the same plan: Point at whoever won and say “do what they did”.

Of course, those lessons keep changing. If a big team wins the Cup, everyone wants size. If it’s a smaller team, we pivot to speed and skill. You need a stud blueliner, unless you don’t. Never spend big on goaltending, unless you should. Build around veteran depth, but stay young. Make trades, but don’t disrupt chemistry, and sign lots of free agents, but don’t mess up your cap.

What lessons will we learn from 2020? Nobody knows yet. But based on the teams that are left, there are some lessons that fans can hope the league will learn. After all, some ideas and concepts just make the NHL more fun, and all else being equal we should hope that teams decide to copy those. So today, let’s take a look at the eight teams left, and take a fan’s perspective on the copycat lesson we’d like to see everyone learn from them.

(Will it all be wishful thinking when GMs inevitably include that the answer is “more grit”? Yes, but shut up, let us have hope.)

The team: Vegas Golden Knights

The lesson: You can still trade your way to a championship.

Remember trading? Trading was fun. For you kids out there, teams used to occasionally exchange assets, often in large transactions that we used to call blockbusters. This was back before the salary cap made every GM’s job too hard. Ask your grandparents, they’ll tell you.

OK, I’m getting dramatic here, and this is a topic I may have already mentioned once or twice or roughly a million times. Trading is still part of the NHL, even if we don’t see the sort of wide-ranging moves that we used to. But for many teams, it doesn’t seem to be a priority. Build through the draft, the thinking goes, and then supplement with a few well-timed moves only when the moment’s right.

The Knights didn’t do that. Granted, they kind of couldn’t; being an expansion team has a way of limiting your options. I doubt many teams are going to bother with trying to copy a team that’s only existed for three years. But it’s still worth pointing out how aggressive the Knights have been when it comes to making trades, not just around their expansion draft but in the seasons since. They went big for Max Pacioretty. They won the Mark Stone sweepstakes. And this year they went out and got Robin Lehner even though they already had a goalie. That seems to be paying off. Guess they had to take a stab at it.

Again, nobody can point at the Knights and say “copy everything they did,” because expansion drafts aren’t an option for anyone outside Seattle. But if they win it all in Year 3, it’s at least going to get tougher for GMs to tell us about how they just can’t be expected to make important trades anymore. (Especially at the deadline, but we’ll hit that point again in a little bit.)

The team: Vancouver Canucks

The lesson: Offense isn’t the enemy.

This one’s not complicated. Defense might win championships, but goals are fun, and if you watch the Canucks you’re going to see more goals in a typical game than you will for any other contender.

The Canucks scored 228 goals in the regular season, good for second in the West behind Colorado. But they also gave up 217, more than any other team that’s still standing. At nearly 6.5 combined goals per game, the Canucks lead the remaining teams by a decent margin.

I’m not naive enough to think that a Canucks Cup win would change the defense-first mentality that permeates the league – that ship sailed decades ago. There are no offense-friendly NHL coaches. There are only defensive coaches who can’t get their teams to lock it down as much as they want.

Still, we can hold out hope that an unexpected Canucks run might at least remind a few coaches – or the GMs that hire them – that the idea is to put the puck into the other team’s net more often than it goes in yours, and that a 5-4 win still counts as a win. Wishful thinking? Probably, but we need all the help we can get.

The team: Philadelphia Flyers

The lesson: You can trust your young goalie (maybe).

Goalies are weird. That’s not exactly breaking news to longtime fans, but try explaining the position to a newbie. The goalie can be the most important player in any given matchup, with the ability to single-handedly win or lose a game or even a series. But we’re never completely sure who’s good and who isn’t, and sometimes guys we’ve never heard of become superstars, at least temporarily.

And oh yeah: goalie prospects take forever to develop. Your team drafts a guy, you get excited hearing about how good they’ll be someday, and then they just … disappear. Not completely, of course. But while your team’s best forward and blue line prospects start making their NHL debuts within a season or two, if not immediately, that goalie just lingers off in the distance. For years.

Look around the league. Thatcher Demko just finished his first year as a full-time NHLer, six years after he was drafted. Ilya Samsonov took five. The KHL means Ilya Sorokin still hasn’t arrived, and he’s already 25. Your favorite team’s best goalie is probably in a similar boat.

It didn’t used to be this way. Top goaltending prospects used to show up fairly quickly, just like other positions. Tom Barrasso had a Vezina-winning season at 18. Patrick Roy’s big breakout came when he was 20. Martin Brodeur’s Calder season came at 21. Grant Fuhr was the Vezina runner-up at 19.

Enter Carter Hart, the Flyers goalie who debuted at 20 and has established himself as a star despite just turning 22 this month. That’s old school, and it’s been fun to watch a team make a run with a baby-faced goalie. And hey, it’s not like the Flyers haven’t watched a young rookie have some playoff success before.

Granted, not every team has a Carter Hart waiting in the wings, and nobody wants to see young goalies rushed into starting jobs before they’re ready. But maybe not every goalie needs six years in the minors and three more as a backup before they’re ready to handle the big job. Watching Hart dominate might help nudge us back to trusting the kids.

(Just please get him to stop talking about how he grew up watching Carey Price, it’s making me feel very old.)

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Friday, August 21, 2020

The Mandela Effect: Six memorable moments that we may not remember quite right

There’s an interesting phenomenon in pop psychology called the Mandela Effect, in which a large number of people tend to remember something incorrectly. Named after South African political leader Nelson Mandela, it’s based on the widely held belief that he died in the 1980s. He didn’t, but lots of people remember that he did, which leads to an interesting case of …

Sigh. Yes, Nelson Mandela. OK, fine, I’ll pause here while you all make your Jonathan Bernier jokes.

Got that out of your system? Cool, because today we’re going to look at some candidates for hockey examples of the Mandela Effect. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone remembers all of these moments the same way. If you remember these moments correctly, cool. You’re certainly not alone. But in my travels around the hockey fan world, I’ve run into repeated cases where memories of these moments aren’t quite right.

That’s always been kind of interesting to me. So today, let’s dig into six famous moments from hockey history that might not have actually happened the way you remember them.

When golden moments aren’t so golden

The memory: We might as well start with what’s no doubt the most famous hockey Mandela moment — the Miracle on Ice, in which an underdog Team USA beat the Soviets for the gold medal in one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports. Millions of fans around the world watched as the final seconds ticked down to Al Michaels’ legendary call of “Do you believe in miracles?” with the American players spilling off the bench to celebrate their golden moment.

The problem: That wasn’t the gold medal game.

OK, I’m guessing you knew that. This is one of those moments where so many fans had it wrong for so many years that by now, we’ve all been corrected. That happens sometimes with these things. The myth that the Miracle on Ice happened in the gold medal game was around for so long that most fans probably believed it at some point, but now we all know the truth. Any real hockey fan can tell you: Team USA still had to beat Finland in the gold medal game two nights later.

Except that’s also wrong.

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Thursday, August 20, 2020

Puck Soup: Playoff pasta

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to Tuukka Rask going home
- Thoughts on all the series so far
- Where will the big-name UFAs end up?
- More NBC guys said dumb things
- The return of the $25,000 Pierre-amid
- OUFL, pasta edition
- And a goodbye to Dale Hawerchuk

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Ranking the 25 most painful first-round losses of the cap era

We’re deep into what’s officially the first round of the 2020 playoffs, and you know what that means: It’s time to bring on the sadness.

Well, sure, there’s happiness too, if your team wins. I’m told that’s pretty fun, and as a Leafs fan, I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it. But only one team is going to ride that happiness all the way to a championship. Everyone else gets to be sad. And every year, those first-round losers get to reserve the first eight spots at the sadness table.

Of course, not all first-round losses are created equal. Sometimes, your team isn’t expected to win, they don’t come all that close, nothing especially memorable happens, and the whole thing is over quickly. Maybe you’re just happy to have been there at all. You lose, life moves on, and that’s it.

But sometimes, a first-round loss leaves a mark. Those are the ones that we remember. So today, let’s count down a ranking of the 25 saddest first-round exits of the cap era.

One important ground rule: We’re allowing a dose of hindsight to come into play here. Sometimes, the initial sting of a first-round loss fades when you see how the rest of the postseason plays out, or after a few years of history have piled up. Often, it goes the other way, and it just keeps getting worse. We’ll take that into account here.

(And yes, it goes without saying that all the times that your favorite team lost were clearly the worst and most painful losses ever. If they’re not all listed here, that’s a mistake by the editors, because I had them on my list. I’m with you, your team’s pain is special and unique.)

We’ll start at 25 and work our way down, twisting the knife as we go. Remember, these are first-round losses from the cap era. Let’s get ready to be sad.

25. Flames vs. Ducks, 2006

Here’s a weird stat: Heading into the 2006 playoffs, the Flames hadn’t lost a playoff round against a team in their conference in 10 years. That wasn’t as impressive as it sounded, since they’d missed the playoffs altogether in seven of those years and a lockout had eaten up another. But the other year was 2004, when they’d gone all the way to Game 7 of the Final before losing to the Lightning in controversial fashion.

Two years later, with a new salary cap system in place, it was time to pick up where they’d left off. Instead, they ran into Ilya Bryzgalov and managed just one goal in the final two games while blowing a 3-2 series lead. We didn’t know it at the time, but they wouldn’t win another round until 2015.

24. Blackhawks vs. Canucks, 2011

I can’t rank this one all that high, since the Hawks had one Cup in the bank and two more on the way, and the Canucks were the favorites. Still, sometimes pain is all about the missed opportunity, and we were so close to an all-time collapse. The Hawks’ came within Game 7 overtime of coming all the way back from down 3-0 — and in the process, inflicting the sort of psychological damage on a rival that they may never recover from. And to make matters worse, look who gets to overtime winner.

23. Red Wings vs. Lightning, 2015

The 2014-15 Red Wings remain the franchise’s last 100-point team, but went into their series against the Lightning as underdogs. They gave them all they could handle, taking the series lead three times only to have the Lightning respond with a win each time. That included a controversial Game 6 loss on home ice that saw Niklas Kronwall hammer Nikita Kucherov with a monster hit. He didn’t receive a penalty on the play, but the league took the ultra-rare step of suspending a star for a Game 7. Needless to say, Red Wings fans were not happy.

The deciding game was a tight one, and the Wings held a big edge in shots, but couldn’t beat Ben Bishop in a 2-0 loss that would end up being the last for Mike Babcock in Detroit. The fact that they haven’t won a round since, and don’t look like they will anytime soon, only adds to the pain.

22. Penguins vs. Flyers, 2012

It’s never fun to lose to a rival. It’s significantly less fun when you give up 20 goals in the first three games. The Penguins did fight back, literally at times, including a wild 10-3 win in Game 4, and a 3-2 win in Game 5 had us thinking comeback. But the Flyers nipped that in the bud with a 5-1 win to ice one of the craziest series any of us can remember.

21. Canadiens vs. Hurricanes, 2006

Most fans might remember this series as the one that birthed the legend of Cam Ward, and started the Hurricanes down the path to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Montreal fans might tell you it was the Saku Koivu series, one that saw the Habs take a 2-0 series lead before their beloved captain was high-sticked in the eye by Justin Williams in Game 3.

Montreal blew a late lead and lost that game in overtime, went on to lose the series in six, then watched the Hurricanes win it all while Williams became a hero. Lingering bitterness over a playoff high-sticking incident? Not sure I can relate, but we’ll allow it.

20. Thrashers vs. Rangers, 2007

The bad news is that the Thrashers lost. The worse news is that they lost in four straight games. The even worse news is that it was the most successful playoff run in franchise history. The worst news of all is that it stayed that way, and always will.

Other than that, went great.

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Monday, August 17, 2020

Weekend rankings: Sorting through the early contenders and pretenders

Yeah, we’re doing another postseason power ranking, even though this is a feature that was built for the regular season. Being a hockey writer when the playoffs are in August is like being a referee in overtime: The rules go out the window.

The last time we tried this was two weeks ago when each team had all of one whole game of qualifying action to go on. Somewhat amazingly, those one-game-old rankings hold up kind of well – all five teams we had ranked at the bottom lost their qualifying round, all five teams at the top are still alive, and our decision to rank the Maple Leafs as being in more trouble than the Canucks turned out to be prescient. Is it… is it possible that I’m only good at this during the playoffs? That doesn’t sound likely. Quick, let’s do another set of rankings and put that thought to rest.

It was an interesting weekend in the bubble, as we saw our first high-profile departure from a star who decided he’d had enough. Tuukka Rask’s exit came as a shock, especially with the announcement coming just hours before the Bruins took the ice for Game 3. He’d made some waves earlier in the week with his comments about a lack of playoff atmosphere, but not many of us saw this coming. Don Sweeney maybe did, at least based on his comments in the aftermath, and it should go without saying that Rask has the right to put his family first.

The Rask story came a few days after we saw a very different kind of surprise exit, this one from Canadiens’ coach Claude Julien, who was hospitalized with chest pains and will miss at least the rest of this round. Both the Bruins and the Canadiens responded to adversity with impressive wins, but the long-term impact remains to be seen.

Under normal circumstances, this is where I’d insert the standard boilerplate about how some things are more important than sports, and that health and family are always the priority. But it’s 2020, and I’m guessing you don’t need a reminder of that. The NHL has done an admirable job of putting this tournament together, maybe the best of all the major sports leagues. But this week was a reminder that it won’t be easy, and that despite having been at this for weeks, we’re somehow still only halfway through Round 1.

Is that too early to be picking favorites? Of course it is. But it’s August and it’s the playoffs and we’re doing this anyway.

Road to the Cup

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

One worry I had going into the first round was that we’d see a big disconnect between the teams that had just fought through a qualifying series and those that been playing in the round robin for seeding. Those latter games had featured a noticeable lack of intensity compared to the do-or-die variety, and I wondered if we’d get a week into this round and find all of the so-called favorites trailing because they just couldn’t keep up.

Nope. Or at least, not really. A few of the favorites did get off to slow starts, most noticeably the Blues and Capitals. But even those series didn’t look like anyone was going at half-speed, so at least one pre-tournament worry seems to have been unfounded.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – Whatever happened in Sunday’s game, there was no question about what would stand as the highlight of the weekend:

Hell yeah, Oskar Lindblom.

The Flyers may have been inspired heading into Game 3. Or maybe they’re just the better team. That’s what the regular season records say, as well as the seeding. It’s not what most of the action in the first two games had suggested, as these two teams went back and forth. The Flyers needed Sunday’s win after Friday’s no-show, and they got it, but this series still feels like it has a few twists and turns left in it, and the Flyers had better find some offense.

4. Boston Bruins – So what do we do with the Bruins? Despite what many of their loudest fans seem to think, Rask is a very good goaltender with a history of postseason success. (He has a better career postseason save percentage than Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek, so the narrative that he doesn’t come through in the clutch is a mystery.) They’re going to miss him.

How much? That’s the critical question, and the answer is we’re not really sure. Jaroslav Halak is one of the stronger backups in the league, so the Bruins are in better shape than a lot of teams would be. But being a great backup isn’t quite the same as being a great starter, and as good as he is, Halak isn’t Rask.

You could make the argument that Rask wasn’t Rask either, given where his head was at this month. Maybe under the circumstances, Halak will be an upgrade. Or maybe he’ll be close enough that it won’t really matter. But the Bruins are in tough against a really good Hurricanes team, and they’re still missing David Pastrnak.

Can they overcome all of it to make it out of the round, and beyond? I’ve got them in the top five, so that tells you that I still believe. But it’s a tougher call than it would have been a week ago.

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Thursday, August 13, 2020

What’s wrong with the Maple Leafs? Exploring eight theories

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but with their season on the line, the Toronto Maple Leafs came up small. Sunday’s Game 5 loss to the Blue Jackets marked the third straight year the Leafs have lost a winner-take-all game, and the fourth straight that they’ve lost in the first round they played. Four years into the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner/William Nylander era, the Leafs have won as many postseason rounds as they did during the dark decade before. As in, none.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Leafs were the favourite against Columbus, if only marginally. The talent on the roster seems undeniable. They’ve been a roughly 100-point team for four years now. When you look at what normally goes into a successful rebuild, the Leafs have checked most of the boxes. And yet here we are again, in the aftermath of another game that was supposed to be their chance to Change The Narrative, and it all played out the same way it always does.

So what’s wrong? And how can they fix it?

The roster has its holes, like any roster in a hard cap league will. There’s always room for improvement. But with the Shanahan-era Leafs, that’s not what we’ve come to mean when we ask what’s wrong. No, we mean: What’s wrong? What’s the fundamental flaw, the big problem, the overarching defect that’s keeping them from achieving the success that, on paper, they should have already had?

That’s what everyone’s trying to figure out these days. That includes the Leafs themselves, who spent yesterday’s season-ending Zoom sessions answering variations of the same question: What’s wrong with you guys?

Let’s look at eight theories you’ll hear come up about this team, and see which ones might be on to something.

Theory: The whole philosophy behind the roster is flawed

The theory: By now, the Brendan Shanahan/Kyle Dubas model is fairly well-established. Load up on skill, control the puck, trust your goaltending, and win the game by playing in the other team’s zone, where you do your best work. Toughness is fine, as is veteran grit, but that’s not the priority in today’s game. You pay top dollar for speed and skill, and fill in as much of the rest as you can afford around the edges.

It makes a lot of sense, right up until the postseason arrives, the game clogs up, and you’re getting outworked by a team with less skill but more jam, and your high-priced superstars can’t find room to operate.

Why it fits: It sure seems to pass the eye test. And losing to a hard-working team like the Blue Jackets will only reinforce it.

Except…: It’s not like skill teams aren’t having any success around the league. Last year’s Blues were a heavy team, but the Big Bad Bruins haven’t been all that big or bad in years, and they seem to do fine. The Penguins won back-to-back Cups without intimidating anyone. And if you can’t advance without size and muscle, how come smaller teams like Montreal, Calgary and Arizona could find a way to win last week?

Where that leaves us: A variation on this theme is the old: “They’re built for the regular season, not the playoffs” curse. And there’s truth to that. This Leafs team isn’t one that’s designed to go hard to the net and score dirty goals, and sometimes those end up being the difference in the playoffs. But while there may be something here, all those counterexamples suggest that this can’t be the entire problem. Let’s keep looking.

Theory: The philosophy works, but the current roster doesn’t

The theory: You can win with lots of skill, supplemented by some depth and grit. The approach wouldn’t have worked in the 80s or 90s, but in the modern NHL it absolutely can. But the Leafs have the wrong guys in the wrong roles. That’s why it’s not working.

Why it fits: There’s at least some recent evidence to support this idea too. Start with the blue line. No, you don’t need six Chris Prongers to win a playoff round. But you also don’t want Cody Ceci playing top-four minutes, and for some reason, the Leafs insisted on that pretty much all season long. We all knew they needed a right-handed defenceman last year, but the guy they went out and got, Tyson Barrie, was a disaster.

You can keep going. They’re paying Mitch Marner like he’s an elite, Hart-caliber difference-maker that he might not be. John Tavares is very good, but should he be one of the highest-paid players in the league? We’ve gone around in circles on William Nylander for years. And while Freddie Andersen has generally been good, what’s the deal with those back-breaking goals and constant collapses in deciding games?

Except…: Even if there’s some truth here, I’m not sure how helpful it is. When you’re building an NHL team, you don’t get to choose the exact guys you want for every role. You take what’s available. Tavares was the best free agent on the market. Marner was (probably) the best guy they could draft in that spot. No team, including the ones that win Cups, get their ideal guy in every spot. They do the best they can, then they figure out how to make it work.

Where that leaves us: There’s a lot of overlap between the first two theories, and they boil down to the same thing: The roster needs an overhaul, or at least some significant changes that go beyond tinkering. How do you do that when you’re capped out and most of your key pieces are on long-term deals?

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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The bandwagon-hopper’s guide to the (real) playoffs

Welcome to the playoffs. Well, the real playoffs. Was that last round the real playoffs too? I think it might have been, but nobody’s quite sure. This has all been very confusing.

One thing we do know: Half the league has been eliminated, which means there are a lot of fans out there who might be looking for a bandwagon. That’s always a bit controversial, but we’re not here to judge anyone. You waited five months for the playoffs, if you need a team to invest some emotion in then you do what you have to do.

But who should you pick? It’s a big decision, and we’re here to help.

As always, a good bandwagon pick is going to have a few factors working for it. They’ll be a good team, because nobody wants to bandwagon an early loser, but not too good, because front-runners are the worst. They’ll have at least a few players that are easy to root for, preferably including an OGWAC or two, and not too many guys you can’t stand. In a perfect world they’ll be an entertaining team to watch; especially when you’re not completely invested, you’d rather watch a 6-5 win than a 1-0 slog. And ideally they’ll have an existing fan base that would welcome some support.

These are suggestions only, of course. You’re free to pick your own bandwagon team, or to refuse to pick one at all and then spend the next two months loudly reminding everyone of that fact. But let’s run down the options, just in case.

16. St. Louis Blues

Why you should get on board: It’s become a bit of a tradition to rank the defending champs near the bottom of these lists, and for good reason: That’s classic front running, and no self-respecting bandwagon-hopper should want to be part of that.

That said, you could make a very solid case for the Blues as a perfectly acceptable pick. Remember, this is the team that we had ranked No. 1 on last year’s list. A big piece of that was based on their half-century Cup drought, but not all of it, and a lot of those factors still apply. They’re an interesting team, they’re full of good stories, their GM won’t stop making trades, and their coach can beat you up. They haven’t had to come back from last place this year, but they did endure the scary Jay Bouwmeester situation, and it would be great to see him get another day with the Cup.

Why you shouldn’t: So could you bandwagon this team? Sure. Should you? Maybe. But I’m still ranking them last, and I have a good reason: Their fans have earned it. They spent 53 years as the league’s reasonably well-liked but forgettable kid brother, and now they’re the champions. They deserve everything that comes with that, including a strong dose of jealousy-fueled spite from everyone else.

Bottom line: Boo those stupid Blues, they’ve been riding high for too long!

15. Chicago Blackhawks

Why you should get on board: They’re underdogs, I guess. And based on what they just did to the Oilers, they’re pretty good ones.

Why you shouldn’t: Two reasons. First, they shouldn’t be in the playoffs. They had the 23rd best record in the league, and while there’s absolutely a certain Team Chaos appeal to seeing them knock off a few favorites, having them actually win the Cup would just render the season even more meaningless than it usually is.

And speaking of Cups, oh right, they already have three in the last decade. They’re not a great team now, so this wouldn’t be a front-runner pick, but do you really want to get on board with a fan base that’s going to react to a championship by shrugging and then trying to figure out how they’ll make more room in the trophy case?

Bottom line: Here’s a good rule of thumb for bandwagon picks: If you want to go with an underdog, don’t choose a recent dynasty.

14. Montreal Canadiens

Why you should get on board: Like Chicago, they were a bad team during the season that probably shouldn’t be in the playoffs. But with no recent championships, and not a whole lot of recent relevance, you’d at least be rooting for a team that needs this. If you’re going to go with a 12-seed longshot, the Habs are the better choice. And as a bonus, they’re one of those teams that the analytics folks think might be better than their record, so the odds of a longshot run aren’t quite as long as they appear.

Why you shouldn’t: I say some version of this every year, but it’s worth repeating: Montreal fans do not want you on their bandwagon. Habs fandom is its own kind of thing, and it’s pretty great, but you’re going to have a hard time fitting in. And if they do win it all, room on the bandwagon is going to be tough to come by.

Bottom line: Also, a Habs championship would infuriate the rest of Canada. I’ll leave it to you whether that’s a plus or a minus.

13. Boston Bruins

Why you should get on board: They’re a really good team that finished first in the regular season standings. They’re also only the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, so apparently they’re kind of underdogs? Look, don’t think too hard about it, just embrace the only chance you’ll ever get to cheer for a Presidents’ Trophy winner that doesn’t have home ice.

Why you shouldn’t: They were one win away from the Cup last year, so while they’re not quite as big a front-runner pick as the Blues, they’re pretty close. They have Brad Marchand, and there’s a good chance you have some feelings about him by now. Then again, they also have Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and maybe one last year of Zdeno Chara, so the likability factor is higher than you might expect.

Bottom line: They kind of got screwed hard by the round robin format, so if you’re looking for a somewhat flimsy excuse to get on the bandwagon of one of the best teams in hockey, there’s an opening here.

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Puck Soup: The way the ball bounces

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- We react to the draft lottery, which was rigged
- Thoughts on the Leafs losing when it matters, again
- Greg and Ryan make their picks for the next round
- And probably lots more, but I left early because I'm on vacation this week

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Monday, August 10, 2020

The draft lottery power rankings, Part 2

It’s draft lottery day in the NHL. Again.

We did this once already, back in June, and the results were … well, they were interesting. Having a placeholder team win the first overall pick created a bizarre scenario where the chance to pick left winger Alexis Lafreniere would be “won” by a qualifying round loser. We just didn’t know which one. Tonight, we find out.

It’s a crucially important moment because Lafreniere is an extraordinary prospect who should have an immediate impact on whichever team lands him. Now, instead of winding up on a truly needy franchise like the Red Wings or Senators, he’s going to go to a team that’s already good — and maybe very good.

That seems like something worth breaking out a ranking for. We already did this part too, back in June, when we were rooting for unintentional comedy and Team Chaos. We got our wish, but perspectives may have changed. So rather than make multiple lists, we’re just going to do one big one, covering all eight teams from a variety of angles to see if we can figure out who neutral hockey fans should be rooting for tonight.

We’re looking for five factors:

How much they need it

It’s of course true that every team in the league could use a star winger, especially one on an entry-level deal. But the whole idea behind basing draft order and lottery odds on the standings, I’m told, is that we’re supposed to want to help the very worst teams. That won’t happen this year – sorry Detroit – but we can still hope that Lafreniere doesn’t go to a team that’s already stacked, either now or in terms of their future.

How much they deserve it

A tricky category since nobody “deserves” to win a random drawing. But some teams warrant it more than others, especially the ones that haven’t had much lottery luck or don’t often pick high.

Outrage factor

It’s the nature of lotteries that whichever team wins will be happy and everyone else will be mad. But how mad? It goes without saying that the madder, the better.

League impact

Think big picture. Would this result be good news for an NHL that will have a new star to market and a revenue deficit to make up?

Alternate reality comedy potential

A unique category this year, thanks to the weird lottery setup. The league is basically drawing a series here, meaning that whichever team beat the lottery winner in the play-in round will have cost themselves Lafreniere. This will be funnier for some teams than others.

I also reserve the right to award or subtract bonus points if I see fit. Let’s see where this takes us.

8. Florida Panthers

How much they need it: 5/10. The Panthers have a ton of young talent, especially up front, led by Jonathan Huberdeau (who’s a left winger) and Aleksander Barkov. Based on their results over the years, though, there’s no question the Panthers could use some additional help.

How much they deserve it: 3/10. They’ve already won the first overall pick in the lottery three times, although they only used the pick once, trading it in 2002 and 2003. They still have Aaron Ekblad to show for their 2014 win but haven’t picked higher than tenth since then.

Outrage factor: 2/10. Minimal, even given their lottery history. There’d be the usual grumbling from hardcore Canadian traditionalists who are mad the Panthers even exist, but that’s about it.

League impact: 5/10. The Panthers are a small market, but they’re one the league would like to see on firmer ground.

Alternate reality comedy potential: 4/10. The Islanders could have used Lafreniere, and it would have been mildly amusing to watch Senators fans realize they just lost a protected first-round pick.

Bonus points: +1 for the Panthers being the only team with a history of trading the first overall pick, which would let us at least pretend there was a possibility of a draft floor blockbuster coming. But -1 for all the “Lafreniere will sell a lot of tickets when they move to Quebec” jokes.

Total: 19/50. With no high scores in any category, this would be a perfectly acceptable but not-especially-interesting result, which means nobody who isn’t a Panthers fan should be rooting for it.

7. Edmonton Oilers

How much they need it: 8/10. An elite winger to play with Connor McDavid? Yeah, I’d say they could use a guy like that.

How much they deserve it: -5/10. That’s right, minus-five. They’re already a reasonably good team, at least according to this year’s standings. Far more importantly, they’re basically the poster child for NHL lottery luck. They’ve had the first overall pick four times in the last decade, three of those thanks to lottery wins. And that includes by far the biggest lottery win of the cap era when they jumped past Buffalo and Arizona to win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes in 2015.

That was the year I did my first ever lottery rankings. Here’s what I wrote then: “Look, I’m all for fairness and integrity, but if the Oilers win the lottery, then the league absolutely has to scrap the results and run it again. Don’t even delete the footage or try to cover it up — just have Bill Daly walk into the frame screaming, ‘Take two!’ while angrily stuffing ping-pong balls back into the machine.”

Then they won, McDavid stared into the abyss on live television, and five years later he’s won one playoff round. We can’t let this happen to Lafreniere. The league absolutely needs to “forget” to put the Oilers’ ball into the machine.

Outrage factor: 10/10. People will be beyond furious. It would be kind of amazing.

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Friday, August 7, 2020

Grab Bag: Week one thoughts, a lottery idea and Tocchet spaghetti

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- My thoughts on the first week of the NHL's risky return
- A modest proposal for how to handle the draft lottery reveal
- An obscure player who did his best work in the playoffs
- Weird goalies in the comedy stars
- And Rick Tocchet makes spaghetti in a YouTube classic

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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Puck Soup: Our first look at the postseason

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- Our thoughts on the NHL's return, what's worked and what hasn't
- Breaking down each series
- Are we surprised that the Oilers and Penguins are on the verge of elimination?
- Matt Dumba's speech and the NHL's baby steps towards social activism
- Draft lottery, chapter two
- The best and worst Nintendo characters.
- And more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, listen on The Athletic or subscribe on iTunes.

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

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A fan’s guide to how worried you should be after four days

It’s the postseason. Time to worry.

After all, that’s half the fun during this time of year. And by “fun” I mean that you spend days or weeks or months curled up in a little ball with your eyes shut tight while you make little squeaky whimpering noises. So, not fun at all, I guess.

But postseason misery comes in different forms, and not all worry is created equal. There’s the general sense of low-level trepidation when things are going reasonably well and you’re trying to figure out what the hockey gods are setting you up for. There are zones in the middle, where the glass is half full right before you throw it through your TV screen. And then there’s the full-on existential dread, where things are awful and you’re just trying to figure out how they’ll get worse, and you question why you ever decided to like this team and this sport in the first place.

We’ve all been there. But it’s important to pace yourself and make sure you’re in the right spot. I don’t get to tell you where that is, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I can at least offer up some advice.

Here’s where I’d suggest everyone should be, four whole days into a postseason that’s going to last two more months for some of you, and maybe just a few more hours for others.

Worry level: Low

Fans of all the teams who aren’t here

How are you all enjoying this? Has it been enjoyable? I bet it’s been kind of enjoyable.

The dirty secret of hockey fandom is that having your team miss the playoffs sucks, but watching the playoffs when your team isn’t in them is kind of awesome. You can hate-watch a few teams, bandwagon a couple more if you’re up for it or just work the remote and cheer for overtime. It kind of rules.

Am I speaking from experience? Way too much of it, thanks for asking.

Lightning, Flyers, Avalanche and Golden Knights

That would be the four teams in the round robin who’ve opened with a win. Wins are good. You want to start strong and get a little momentum, and with just three games to play in this mini-tournament, an early win is pretty much mandatory if you want to finish first in the conference and grab the top seed.

Will that top seed matter? Probably not, since you could still end up facing a tougher matchup, but every little bit helps and securing home ice and last change is a little bit. And at least it’s fun to say that it’s the postseason and you’re riding a winning streak that’s lasted almost five months.

New York Islanders

They are who we thought they were, at least so far. In other words, they’re a very well-coached team that won’t blow you away with skill or clog up a highlight reel, but know how to shut down an opponent and turn a game into the kind they want to play. They embarrassed the Penguins with a sweep last year, and now find themselves two-thirds of the way to giving the Panthers the same treatment.

As long as Mathew Barzal can avoid doing any more headers into the boards that briefly gave everyone a heart attack, there hasn’t been much for Islander fans to worry about yet. Take advantage of it while it lasts.

New York Rangers

Good job, good effort. Enjoy a few weeks of Alexis Lafreniere highlights.

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Monday, August 3, 2020

Weekend power rankings: Yes, a playoff edition. Yes, based on one game.

I wouldn’t normally do this.

A weekend power ranking in the playoffs, I mean. It never really made sense. The whole idea behind the weekly rankings is to try to crack the puzzle of separating the contenders from the also-rans and then, the hopeless bottom-feeders. By the time the regular season ends, we pretty much have our answers. The bottom of the standings are set, and while we don’t know who’ll win the Cup, we’ve at least narrowed the field down the 16 playoff-worthy teams. And once the first round starts, a lot of what we think we know gets exposed, so you may as well just enjoy the ride.

So yeah, normally this would make no sense. But as you may have noticed, normal went out the window a long time ago. I don’t usually spend a long weekend in August nailed to my couch watching postseason hockey, but I just did that, and you probably did too. And I’m pretty pumped about it, so screw normal, let’s welcome the NHL back with a weekend power ranking.

If you’re new to this feature, it typically runs every week during the regular season and has an impeccable track record of accuracy. It also usually comes with a disclaimer about how we’re trying to predict the future, not necessarily react to the past, and one or two games shouldn’t be enough to cause wild swings in the rankings. But in the playoffs, or whatever we’re calling this week, well … swing away, right? If there was ever a time to overreact to one game, it turns out that it’s August.

The NHL just served up a weekend featuring upsets, highlights, multiple penalty shots, a few scraps, big injuries, several questionable hits and one suspension. We have one game to work with, it feels good to be back, let’s do this.

Road to the Cup

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

Let’s start with a spoiler that probably won’t spoil much: My top five are all teams that are in the round robin. That only makes sense – they’ve all got a guaranteed ticket to the next round, while the play-in teams have to fight it out for their opportunity. Also, they’re the best teams, at least in theory, although that may not end up mattering much.

By the way, we all agree that the round robin is a screwed-up way to determine seeding, right? I get that you want the games to matter so that everyone isn’t just going through the motions in glorified exhibitions, but we kind of just rendered the whole regular season meaningless. The right way to do it would have been to have the three round-robin games count towards the points the teams already had, so the Flyers could pass the Capitals without it being possible for the Stars to make up 12 points on the Blues in a week. Sorry Bruins, enjoy being the first Presidents’ Trophy winners in NHL history to be a four-seed.

5. Philadelphia Flyers – Beating a good Bruins team in a semi-meaningful game isn’t enough to move them past Boston on my list of contenders, but it does earn them a top-five spot, at least until teams like Caps and Stars get to play. I was leaning towards putting the Knights in this spot, but I’ll wait until I see more of them. Well, more of them in a game, I mean, since I think I’ve seen that iPhone ad roughly 400 times already.

4. St. Louis Blues – They didn’t look great last night, but let’s look on the bright side: They played a bad game against an excellent opponent and were still 0.1 seconds away from earning at least a point. That’s the sign of a good team. Well, that and the whole “defending champions” thing.

3. Boston Bruins – At this point, we don’t know what’s going on with Tuukka Rask, but the indications are that it’s not serious. That’s good; seeing him get into a game would be better. The Bruins still have a week before worrying about Round 1, and while they’d probably like a higher seed than a lower one, I’m not sure it matters all that much to them. It sure didn’t look like it did yesterday.

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