Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Podcast: Meeting of the minds

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- The GMs gather for the annual meeting, and oh god that means we have to talk about interference again
- Everyone's mad at Colin Campbell for saying goalies embellish even though he's right
- Why do the GMs get to decide the rules anyway?
- Dave came up with 42 ways to fix the NHL; I have a few objections
- The Hurricanes go cheap on their hunt for a new GM
- The great Hart Trophy war of 2018 drags on with no end in sight
- I am repeatedly accused of being a Habs fan
- Reader questions and lots more

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Ranking the ten best Rocket Richard races

With less than three weeks left in the season, most of the attention is focused on the playoff races. And rightly so, as teams battle it out down to the wire to see who’ll earn a spot and how the matchups will sort out.

But there are other races worth watching, including for some of the individual honours. The Art Ross battle is shaping up as a great one, with season-long leader Nikita Kucherov trying to fend off late surges from Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Evgeni Malkin among others. Meanwhile, Kucherov’s teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy is trying to hold off Pekka Rinne and Connor Hellebuyck for the wins title.

But with all due respect to those races, the best of the bunch is for the Rocket Richard Trophy. The goal-scoring title is shaping up as a potential head-to-head fight to the finish between Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine, a classic contest between the old guard and the next generation. Laine is the teenaged whiz kid hungry to claim the title in just his second season, while Ovechkin represents the grizzled veteran who isn’t ready to give it up. Mix in Malkin, Eric Staal, the stunning underdog story of William Karlsson and a few others, and this one could come down to the wire. If so, it may be remembered as one of the greatest Rocket Richard races we’ve ever seen.

So today, let’s put together that list, if only to give Laine and Ovechkin something to aim for. The Rocket Richard Trophy has been around since the 1998–99 season, giving us 18 races to work with. Some of those were duds; even in the dead-puck era, the award has been won by a margin of 10 goals or more a half-dozen times. We’ll narrow it down to a top 10, counting our way down to the best race we’ve seen… at least until this year’s.

No. 10: 2000–01

The race: One year after running away with the 2000 title by 14 goals, Pavel Bure had his sights set on a second straight win. It seemed like he’d get it by a similar margin, but a late-season slump saw him finish with just one goal in his final six. That opened the door for two veteran stars who finished hot: Jaromir Jagr, who scored nine in his last six games, and Joe Sakic, who had eight in his last four.

The winner: Bure had built such a big lead that the strong finishes only managed to make the gap respectable. Bure took home the crown with 59 goals, easily topping Sakic (54) and Jagr (52).

The legacy: As races go, it wasn’t all that dramatic. But the fact that it featured three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers earns it a spot in our top 10, narrowly beating out Corey Perry‘s win in the similarly lopsided 2011 race.

No. 9: 1998–99

The race: The Rocket Richard didn’t even exist when the season began; it was only unveiled that January. Still, it looked like Teemu Selanne would capture the inaugural trophy relatively easily when he hit the 45-goal mark with eight games to play. But he went cold down the stretch, opening the door for a field that included Jagr, Alexie Yashin, Tony Amonte and John Leclair to at least make things interesting.

The winner: Jagr and Amonte made a late push, with each scoring four times in their final three games to hit the 44-goal mark. But Selanne coasted home to the crown, finishing the year with 47.

The legacy: The race was just OK, and is probably best remembered just for being the first for the new trophy. Still, given the increased profile that came with attaching Richard’s name to the goal-scoring race, Selanne felt like a worthy winner. An odd fact: The 47 goals made this only the fifth-highest goal-scoring season of his career, but it was the only time he ended up alone in top spot on the leaderboard.

No. 8: 2015–16

The race: It came down to a two-horse race, with Alex Ovechkin gunning for his fourth straight crown while Patrick Kane looked for his first.

The winner: Kane finished the season with a two-goal performance, but Ovechkin topped him with a hat trick. That gave him the title by a four-goal cushion, and even that makes it sound closer than it really was — Kane needed seven goals in his last five to even get that close, and nobody else came within nine of Ovechkin.

The legacy: In terms of star power, this race was right up there; Kane took home the Hart Trophy that season, and Ovechkin had already won it three times. But there wasn’t much suspense, beyond wondering whether Ovechkin would get to 50. He did, with 10 minutes to spare.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Monday, March 19, 2018

Weekend wrap: The beginning of the end

The NHL regular season is a long story. It lasts six months, and there are stretches where it feels like we’ve settled into a status quo. Things happen, many of them important, even if we don’t always recognize them at the time. Every chapter along the way matters, and even a rough few weeks can spell the end of a team’s chances. But for the most part, the season unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, and even a week-to-week feature like this one sometimes struggles to find something new to talk about. It’s never boring. It’s just that things move slowly.

That is, right up until we get to the end. Welcome to the end.

With three weeks left in the season, we’ve hit the part of the schedule where things change quickly in noticeable ways. For example, this week saw the appearance of the first “x.” You know the “x” — the little symbol that appears in the standings next to a team that’s clinched its playoff spot. The first few don’t really tell us much, because they appear next to teams that we already knew were playoff locks. That was the case when the Predators became the first team to earn the honour, and it remained true yesterday when the Lightning joined them.

But the “x” serves as a signal that the urgency is picking up, with every one that appears representing one fewer playoff spot available for the taking. There’s two on the standings page now, but those will be joined by several more in the days to come. Soon, those x’s will be joined by the y’s and z’s and eventually even the “p” for Presidents’ Trophy. Those letters mean we can finally drop all those “maybe” and “probably” and “likely” qualifiers and start talking about what actually is. They mean that there’s no turning back.

Likewise, this was the week that a few teams earned the dreaded “e,” signalling their mathematical elimination from the playoffs. The NHL doesn’t like that one, and doesn’t use it on its own standings page, but we know it’s out there. In recent days, the Sabres, Coyotes and Canucks have all been put out of their misery, and the Red Wings and Senators are days away from joining them. Again, none of this is breaking news to fans of those teams. But the finality of seeing the “e,” especially with weeks still to play, drives home that the season really is a write-off.

That leaves the middle ground of teams who still aren’t sure which letter they’ll get, and that’s where the real fun starts. For the first few months of the season, we’ve all got plenty of time to craft long-range narratives about who’s heading in the right direction and who might fall short. In these final weeks, it starts to feel like everything gets thrown out the window after every game.

The Panthers are on fire and heading towards an inevitable playoff berth? Not when they blow a third-period lead to cough up a game to the Oilers on home ice. The Devils are fading and facing an impossibly tough schedule? Chalk up road wins over the Predators, Knights and Kings, and suddenly they’re looking comfortable again. The Blues have raised the white flag on the season? Wins in four of five have them right back in the mix. The top three in the Metro is locked in? Let’s see what the Blue Jackets and their seven straight wins have to say about it. The inconsistent Flames are fumbling away a wild-card spot? Well, look, we didn’t say that everything was changing.

But who knows, the Flames could always roll off four straight wins this week and send the script careening in a different direction. That’s what one good (or bad) stretch can do when it gets this late. But with only three weeks left, time is running out.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (46-21-5, +44 true goals differential*): They’d lost four straight at home, giving up 21 goals along the way, and needed an easy win to get things back on track. Luckily for them, the Flames arrived just in time.

4. Winnipeg Jets (43-19-10, +51): Mark Scheifele returned to the lineup and had an assist in last night’s win. But they may have lost Jacob Trouba.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday storylines: Spoiler alert

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a special occasion, one that hockey fans typically spend drinking slightly more beer than usual, thinking, “Wait, why is my team wearing green?” and watching old YouTube clips of people punching each other.

Today, fans can also spend it with 10 matchups, including a classic Canadian rivalry.

HNIC Game of the Night: Canadiens at Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs and Canadiens have been back in the same division for nearly two decades now, and they’ve spent most of that time engaged in a strange dance where only one team at a time can be any good. When the Leafs were contending for a Cup under Pat Quinn around the turn of the century, the Habs mostly missed the playoffs. When the Canadiens followed that up by making the post-season in eight of the first 10 post-lockout seasons, the Maple Leafs decidedly did not. And now that Toronto is finally good again, Montreal seems to be on the verge of a rebuild.

But through it all, it’s been a consistent truth that games between the teams always seemed to be good, or at least memorable. Even when one team was awful and had nothing to play for, there was something about the Toronto/Montreal matchup that could be counted on to produce at least a little magic. Whether it was a dramatic goal or some bad blood or a serenade gone wrong, something fun would happen. You can scoff at lame stories about rivalries and history and ghosts all you want, but the Leafs and Habs usually delivered.

Tonight will put that theory to the test. The Canadiens don’t have much of anything left to play for, and come in having lost six of their last seven. With Shea Weber, Carey Price and Max Pacioretty all out of the lineup with long-term injuries, the Habs are clearly in just-get-it-over-with mode down the stretch. Even the usual narrative about playing for next year’s jobs only goes so far, as we’re not even sure whether the current GM will still be around to make those roster calls. You could forgive Montreal fans if they were more interested in making little heart-eyes at John Tavares than in watching what’s left of this roster play out the string.

Meanwhile, the Leafs come into this one riding a franchise-record 11-game home winning streak. It’s been an impressive run, especially with most of it coming without Auston Matthews. But it hasn’t done much to change the standings, where Toronto remains locked into third place in the Atlantic. With 10 games left in the regular season after this one, the Leafs would probably prefer to fast-forward straight to the playoffs, if only to avoid any more injuries like the ones that have claimed Matthews, Frederik Andersen and most recently Leo Komarov.

So two teams, only one of which is any good, and neither with much of anything to play for. And yet… well, it’s still Toronto and Montreal. As eye-rolling as the premise may be, there really is something special about seeing the league’s oldest rivalry play out on a Saturday night. And with the way these things tend to go, would anyone be all that shocked to see a depleted Montreal roster arrive in town and pull off the upset, snapping the Leafs’ record-setting win streak in the process?

If you’ve followed this rivalry over the years, you know to expect the unexpected by now. At the very least, Toronto fans may want to keep the victory songs to themselves until the final buzzer.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 16, 2018

Grab Bag: Ten Commandments of Replay Review

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- In an important message for hockey fans of the future, I spell out the Ten Commandments of Adding More Replay Review
- The mysterious injury problem that's sweeping the league, just like it does every year
- An obscure player who snapped the longest goal-scoring drought ever
- The week's three comedy stars are homer-ific
- And a YouTube breakdown of the big brawl from the St. Patrick's Day Massacre. No, the other one.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports