Thursday, May 26, 2016

With the San Jose Sharks eliminating the St. Louis Blues Wednesday night and the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins headed to a seventh game Thursday, we’re just hours away from having our Stanley Cup Final matchup set. We’ll be down to the best of the best, going head-to-head with the greatest trophy in sports on the line.

And so today, let’s do what any true hockey fan does when confronted with greatness. Let’s ignore it, and pick on the guys who weren’t quite good enough instead.

We’re going to assemble a full lineup of the biggest disappointments from the 2016 playoffs – four centres, eight wingers, six defencemen, two goalies, and even a coach and GM. And we won’t shy away from including some big names. In fact, the bigger the name the better, since high expectations bring more disappointment when they’re not met.

When you look at it that way, finding someone from your favourite team on this list could be considered a compliment, which you should definitely keep in mind before immediately heading into the comments section to call me an idiot. (You still will.)

So here we go, starting up front. (All stats are from hockey-reference.com and war-on-ice-com.)

CENTRES

Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

Let's get this out of the way first: No, Alex Ovechkin, the Caps' leading playoff scorer, did not make this team.

True, as Ovechkin's critics love to point out, maybe he didn't elevate his game – by which they presumably mean he should float around three feet over the ice by sheer force of will. But he wasn't a bust, or anything close to it.

Kuznetsov, on the other hand… ouch. After leading the Capitals with 77 points in a breakout regular season, Kuznetsov was limited to just two points in two rounds of the playoffs, which works out to an average of — *tries to do math in head* — not enough.

As with many guys on our list, a lot of that was bad luck – he went from 11.4 per cent on-ice shooting across all situations during the regular season to an almost comically awful 0.9 per cent in the playoffs. That's not a player (and all of his teammates) forgetting how to play, it's random chance striking at the worst possible time. Still, for a team that was desperate to go deep, having their leading scorer go cold at exactly the wrong time stings badly.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

Yeah, I know, I don't like this any more than you do.

Heading into what was likely to be his last NHL post-season, Datsyuk had the makings of a feel-good playoff story.

Instead, the 37-year-old was held pointless as the Wings bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five. We're still not sure if he's heading home, although recent reports sure make it sound that way. If this really is the end, it wasn't the one his magnificent career deserves.

Eric Staal, New York Rangers

When the Rangers acquired Staal at the deadline, everyone cautioned that expectations should be reasonable. This wasn't the 2006 version of Staal, after all. New York was getting a guy on the wrong side of 30 who was having a tough season. And the relatively cheap price they paid reflected that – for once, they didn't even give up a first round pick.

But even given all that, they had to be hoping that a change of scenery and chance to play on a potential Cup contender would give Staal some sort of boost. Instead, they got six points in 20 regular season games and none at all in their first round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The bar was low; Staal sailed well under it.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Typically, a one-point post-season from one of the league's best offensive players would be enough to earn a spot at the very top of the list. But given the injuries Giroux was battling, we'll bump him down to fourth-line duties. That will keep Flyers fans happy, right?

[Gets pelted with souvenir bracelets.]

Thought so.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet





Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ranking the best conference finals ever

NHL fans are starting to get a little bit spoiled when it comes to the conference finals. This year’s two matchups have featured plenty of star power, several close games, and more than a little drama. And for the third consecutive year, both series are going at least six games.

That might not sound all that impressive, but it’s actually a relatively rare situation in the modern era. Until 2014, it hadn’t happened at all in the salary cap era. And it wasn’t much more common before that. For example, it happened only once during the dynasty-packed 80s, as teams like the Islanders and Oilers (or both) could often be found cruising through a weaker opponent on their way to the final.

So today, let’s look back at some of the best conference finals, dating back to the introduction of the 16-team format in 1980. Remember, we’re looking for the best combination of two series, meaning some all-time classic series (like Leafs/Kings in 1993 and Devils/Rangers in 1994) won’t show up here because the other conference served up a dud.

Here are my picks for the five best years for the NHL’s final four:

#5: 2015

In the East: Lightning over Rangers in seven. The Rangers were the defending conference champs and looked dominant in blowout wins in Games 4 and 6, but the Lightning went into MSG and shut them out in Games 5 and 7 to advance to the final.

And in the West: Blackhawks over Ducks in seven. Through five games, this was one of the best series in recent memory, including six extra periods of overtime hockey. Then the Hawks pulled away with dominant wins in Games 6 and 7, cementing yet another Ducks late-series collapse.

Add it all up: This is one of only two times in the history of the modern format that both conference finals went seven games, so it pretty much has to be on the list. Neither series will be remembered as an all-time classic a decade down the line, but both were very good despite somewhat anti-climactic endings.

#4: 2002

In the East: Hurricanes over Maple Leafs in six. This was the Leafs’ fourth trip to the conference finals in a decade (and, in hindsight, their last for a very long time). The two teams combined for three overtime games, and all but one game in the series was decided by one goal. In the deciding Game 6, the Leafs tied the game on a dramatic goalmouth scramble in the dying seconds, only to lose the series on a Martin Gelinas OT winner.

And in the West: Red Wings over Avalanche in seven. The series was everything you’d expect, featuring three overtime games and a dramatic Game 6 win by the Red Wings that featured the infamous Statue of Liberty goal. That set the stage for a dramatic Game 7, the only one played between the two teams over the course of their storied rivalry. And that game was an epic dud – a 7-0 Wings win that stands as one of the worst Game 7s ever.

Add it all up: Both series provided plenty of drama, and while the Wings/Avalanche Game 7 was a bust, it was certainly memorable.

>> Read the full post at The Hockey News




Tuesday, May 24, 2016

RIP John Brophy

If you’re a hockey fan, you know John Brophy.

Even if you’re too young to remember him, or you’re too new to the sport, or you’re not especially well-versed on your minor league record books, you still know John Brophy. The longtime coach, who passed away on Monday at the age of 83, left a lasting mark on every hockey fan, even those who may not know him by name.

That’s because, according to show business legend, Brophy was the inspiration for the most famous depiction of pro hockey in pop culture history: Paul Newman’s Reggie Dunlop from the classic film “Slap Shot.” That movie, with its over-the-top violence and “old-time hockey” ethos, set the template for how the sport would be perceived for generations. Brophy was where it all began.

But it should go without saying that a well-scripted Hollywood creation didn’t quite measure up to the reality. The real John Brophy wasn’t Reg Dunlop. No, the real guy had a far crazier story than any movie script could ever do justice.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet




Monday, May 23, 2016

Weekend report: Phil Kessel vs. Shawn Michaels, and other less important thoughts

Faceoff: The backup plan

Easily the weirdest story to emerge from this year's conference final is the rise of the backup goaltender. All four teams have turned to their backup at some point during the round, including three that have switched starters. It's the first time since 1980 that we've seen all eight goalies pressed into action in the conference finals.

Of course, not all backup promotions are created equal. Martin Jones and the Sharks just had a rough night on Saturday, and he was pulled in favor of James Reimer largely to give him a chance to rest up for Game 5; after posting back-to-back shutouts earlier in the series, he's in no immediate danger of losing his grip on the starter's job. And the Lightning haven't had much choice in the matter, with Ben Bishop's injury in Game 1 forcing Andrei Vasilevskiy into action. Bishop will resume the starter's duties once he's ready to play, although at this point we're still not sure when that will be.

But things haven't been quite so clear cut in St. Louis or Pittsburgh, where we've seen controversial mid-series switches that were coach's decisions. The first of those calls was made by Ken Hitchcock, who benched Brian Elliott in favor of Jake Allen because... well, nobody's quite sure. Elliott didn't do anything to lose his job; he's been fantastic all season long. But the Blues needed some sort of jolt after failing to score in Games 2 or 3, and Hitchcock apparently felt that a goaltending switch was one way of achieving it. The Blues won Game 4 on Saturday, breaking out of their offensive slump en route to a 6-3 win, so we're all obligated to say that Hitchcock's move worked brilliantly. As for where that leaves Elliott, well, we'll get to that down below.

A similar situation is playing out in Pittsburgh, although there's a twist. Instead of a veteran being sat down for his younger backup, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan's goalie switch saw the veteran regain his net. Marc-Andre Fleury was the Penguins' starter all year and never really lost the job on merit. He got hurt late in the season, and Matt Murray's strong play left Fleury on the bench even after he was healthy enough to play. One rough game by Murray on Friday was enough to open the door for Fleury's return on Sunday, and the results were decidedly mixed. Midway through the game, the Penguins were up 2-0 and Sullivan looked like a genius. But a Lightning comeback ended with a 4-3 OT win, and now it looks like the coach has overplayed his hand.

Between the Blues and the Penguins, we've seen both sides of the goalie switch coin. And with a pair of Games 6s to come, and maybe a Game 7 or two after that, there's still time to see a few more switches.

Top Five

Celebrating those who've had the best week.

5. Eric Fehr—Is it? Could it be? An actual hockey hit that's hard but clean and absolutely nobody is complaining about? Do they still make those?

I think it just might be. But just to be on the safe side, let's all agree to complain twice as much about the next one, OK?

4. Peter DeBoer—Yeah, I'm getting the sense that he doesn't really want to help pump Ken Hitchcock's tires right now.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports




Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lessons from this year's final four

The NHL is a copycat league. We hear that a lot around this time of year, as the field narrows and the number of teams watching sadly from the sidelines grows. All of those teams will have to get better if they want to win a Cup, and some have more work cut out for them than others.

But how do they do it? By cribbing notes from the teams that are winning, of course.

Luckily, this year’s conference final teams will make that a relatively easy job. While every team is different, this year’s final four share some significant similarities. So if you’re a GM facing pressure to improve and you’re looking for a successful formula to borrow, we’ve got you covered. Here are eight lessons we can learn from the teams that are still alive in this year’s Cup hunt.

Lesson #1: Playoff-tested goaltending is overrated

We all know the old clich├ęs: You build a winner from the net out. Goaltending is what wins in the playoffs. And when push comes to shove, you want a goalie who’s been there before, because those are the guys who know how to win, whatever that means.

But recent history has shown that that none of that is necessarily true, as teams have managed deep playoff runs without a veteran star in the crease. This year, there were five goalies in the league with 70 or more playoff starts on their resume, all of whom led their team to a playoff spot. But four of them went out in the first round, and the fifth, Marc-Andre Fleury, is watching the Penguins’ run from the bench.

Heading into this year’s final four, the most experienced starting goaltender left standing in terms of post-season action was Ben Bishop – and he’d never even started a playoff game until last season. Brian Elliott had lost his starting job in each of the last two post-seasons in St. Louis, Martin Jones had never started a playoff game before this season, and Matt Murray was a rookie who didn’t even debut until December.

Lesson #2: Have a young backup you can trust

So you don’t necessarily need to go all-in on a veteran star, at least based on this year’s final four. But there’s a corollary to this rule: Having a capable young backup as an insurance policy sure seems to help.

We’ve already seen that come into play in Pittsburgh as well as in Tampa, where Andrei Vasilevskiy has once again been pressed into action for an injured Bishop. The Blues haven’t had to start Jake Allen yet, but he’s good enough to give them that option. And in San Jose, Jones was the capable young backup until the team went out and made him the starter this summer. And the Sharks still made sure to go out and get James Reimer at the deadline, just in case Jones faltered.

Add it all up, and heading into the playoffs with two solid options – even if one of them is young and cheap – may be just as good if not better than having one veteran star. (Or maybe not. Goaltending is voodoo.)

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet