Monday, March 27, 2017

Weekend wrap: Planting seeds

With two weeks left in the regular season, there’s good news and bad news for anyone hoping for a frantic sprint to the finish line.

The bad news: This year’s playoff bubble has been kind of a bust. In the East, we’ve got four teams fighting for two spots, and one of those teams, the Maple Leafs, was starting to look like a lock before Frederik Andersen got hurt on Saturday. That puts the Leafs back in the mix with the Bruins, Lightning and Islanders; that race should be fun, and we’ll look at it in more detail a few sections down, but right now isn’t exactly a high-drama free-for-all. And in the West, we’re basically done; only the Kings are still in the chase, and their odds are on life support.

Add it all up, and 13 of the 16 playoff spots are already spoken for, and that number could be 14 or even 15 within another few days. So much for the season of parity.

But here's the good news: The battle to figure out which playoff teams will slot in where is still wide open. The Rangers have been locked into the East's first wild-card spot for a while now, and it seems safe to pencil the Blackhawks in as the top seed out West. Beyond that, it's chaos.

That chaos may not make or break anyone's chances – being the home team in a playoff matchup is less important in today's NHL than in just about any other pro sport. Still, seeding does matter, and all else being equal teams will want to finish in the best spot they can.

Nowhere is that fact more important than at the top of the Metro, where three of the league's best teams are fighting for first place. The stakes really couldn't be any higher; take the top seed, and you get to play a wild-card team you'll have finished about 25 points ahead of during the season. But the teams that finish second and third are stuck playing each other, guaranteeing that one of the league's very best teams will be out in the first round. The Capitals would seem to have the edge here, holding a lead and facing a schedule that includes the sad-sack Coyotes and Avalanche. But there's also a matchup in there with the Blue Jackets, who also face the Penguins, so this one isn't over yet.

The Atlantic got some clarity on Saturday, with the Canadiens beating the Senators for the third time in eight nights. That put Montreal up by three, and while Ottawa still holds a game in hand, the Habs will probably own the ROW tie-breaker. Of course, we're not sure whether finishing first in the Atlantic is a good thing, with the Rangers waiting for the winner. For most of the last few months, it's seemed like it might be better to drop down to second and face someone like Toronto or Boston. But with New York suddenly stumbling, that matchup (and guaranteed home ice through at least the first two rounds) suddenly doesn't seem so bad.

Then there's the Pacific, where the Sharks have seen a lead that had grown as large as nine points on March 14 shrink to nothing/a deficit after six straight losses, with the Ducks, Oilers and even the Flames all in the mix to take the top seed. Top spot in the Western divisions isn't looming quite as large as in the East because the wild cards aren't all that far behind, but home ice will help.

Then there are those potential rivalry matchups, like Ottawa/Toronto, Calgary/Edmonton, Anaheim/San Jose or Montreal/Boston. We flagged that possibility a few weeks back, and they've grown more likely since. You've also got a good battle for third in the Central between the Predators and Blues, one that seems even more important as the second-place Wild continue to freefall.

Add it all up, and there's still an awful lot at stake over the next few weeks. You just have to look above the bubble to find it.

Road to the Cup

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

5. Montreal Canadiens (42-24-9, +16 true goals differential*): They return to the top five after a two-month absence. Do I feel good about this pick? Not remotely, as we'll discuss down below.

4. Columbus Blue Jackets (48-19-7, +61): Sergei Bobrovsky has given up three goals in his last four starts. This week brings the Sabres and Hurricanes, but then comes three straight against the top three teams in our rankings.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, March 24, 2017

Podcast: L.A. Story

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I try to fix the Kings, but can't, because they may not be fixable
- The Rangers can't win at home
- The Olympics debates drags on, and on, and on...
- Fond memories of the Avalanche/Red Wings brawl
- And Dave tries to get me to admit that the Maple Leafs are going to the playoffs
- Plus lots more...

>> Stream it now on Vice Sports

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

Grab bag: This will all end in tears

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- Debating the NHL's Olympics participation
- Why the "teams should pick their playoff opponents" idea would never work
- Celebrating the Avs/Wings rivalry with an obscure player pick
- The week's three stars of comedy
- The week's one star of existential dread
- And a classic YouTube breakdown of the most depressing playoff highlight reel ever created...

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

Questioning the NHL's playoff format

With less than a month before the start of the postseason, the NHL has a bit of a mess on its hands. The league’s playoff format has come under fire; one player flat out called the format “stupid”, and plenty of others are criticizing it in only slightly softer terms.

So what exactly is the problem? How did we get here? And do the critics have a point? Let’s break out our handy Q&A format to get to the bottom of this.

So what’s the hockey world complaining about now?

Who says we’re complaining? We’re all busy enjoying the very best time of year for hockey fans, as the race to the regular season finish line gives way to the frantic first round of the … OK, fine, we’re complaining. But for once, we have a good reason: the playoff format being completely and irrevocably screwed up.

That sounds bad. What’s the issue?

The current format is a little complicated, probably more so than it needs to be. But basically, the top three teams in each of the league’s four divisions earn a playoff spot. That leaves four slots open, and those are filled by the two best remaining teams in each conference. Those are the wildcards, and they can come from any division.

Once they’re in, those wildcards get the bottom two seeds and face the two division winners; the best division winner gets the worst wildcard team, while the other division winner gets the other wildcard. Meanwhile, the second and third place teams in each division play each other.

That seems… fine?

For the most part, it is. You can get into weird situations where wildcard teams crossover to the wrong division, which is kind of confusing. But generally, the current system works well enough.

Um, just as long as one division in a conference isn’t way better than the other one. Then everything goes to hell.

>> Read the full post at The Guardian

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Red Wings/Avalanche brawl: The definitive insanity rankings

March 26, 2017 marks the 20-year anniversary of one of the most beloved moments in recent hockey history, which is kind of awkward because that moment involves a lot of people punching each other.

Today’s fans aren’t supposed to like brawls, especially ones that involve blood, sucker punches and flying goaltenders. We’re supposed to be above that these days, with fighting on the decline and the days of true bad-blood rivalries all but over. The game has evolved, we’re told. This is a good thing, we’re expected to reply.

So you may experience some cognitive dissonance when your caveman brain tells you that this was just about the greatest thing ever:

Yes, Sunday will mark two full decades since the infamous Red Wings/Avalanche brawl at Joe Louis Arena. The fight served as payback for Claude Lemieux’s hit from behind on Kris Draper the year before, and was the catalyst for what would go on to become quite possibly the greatest rivalry in hockey history.

We'll save the philosophical debate about whether everything that happened on March 26, 1997, was good or bad or somewhere in between. Instead, let's agree on this: It was crazy. Madness. Flat-out hockey insanity, the likes of which we'll almost certainly never see again.

So today, let's celebrate shake our heads disapprovingly at the events of nearly 20 years ago in a manner befitting the moment: By assigning insanity rankings to anyone and everyone who was involved in the Red Wings/Avalanche brawl.

Peter Forsberg and Igor Larionov

Their role: They started it.

Well, I mean, they didn't really start it. Lemieux did, back in the 1996 playoffs, and there had already been some fallout between the two teams in their previous matchups during the 1996–97 season. That included this game itself, which had already featured a pair of fights and several scrums.

But still, out of everyone who you'd expect to light the fuse that eventually blew the whole rivalry sky-high, two guys who'd get plenty of Lady Byng votes over the course of their careers were an odd choice. Forsberg and Larionov's wrestling match barely involves any punches, but it's enough to draw the full attention of the crowd, most of the players and all four officials. As we'd find out a few seconds later, that last part turned out to be kind of important.

Insanity index: 4/10. Jut for the sheer weirdness of these two being the undercard for everything that was to come. (Although, for the record, when it came to the Red Wings rivalry Forsberg was never exactly a saint.)

Claude Lemieux

His role: Innocent bystander minding his own business and/or notorious cheap-shot artist who was about to finally get what was coming to him, depending on your perspective.

His hit on Draper and everything that followed came to be the defining incident of Lemieux's career, but it's worth remembering that his reputation among hockey fans was already a divisive one well before any of this happened. He was a good player who'd won a Conn Smythe, and was seen as a guy you could tolerate just as long as he was on your team. Fair or not, he was also known as an occasionally dirty player, not to mention a diver and a faker, and more than a few fans already had him on their "most hated" list

Despite a starring role in this brawl, Lemieux doesn't actually do all that much. He gets suckered by Darren McCarty and then immediately covers up. He was widely mocked for turtling, but later explained that McCarty's first punched had concussed him.

Insanity index: 1/10. You can think what you want about Lemieux, and maybe he should have been ready for whatever was to come on this night. But once McCarty drills him, covering up seems like a pretty reasonable choice.

(For what it's worth, Lemieux answered the bell for a more-even tilt with McCarty the following season.)

Darren McCarty

His role: The classic enforcer who's doing his job.

This is where things get a little dicey, and we're going to run into a generation gap between fans. Anyone who did what McCarty did in a game today would face a major suspension, not to mention generating dozens of reputation-stomping think pieces in the process. Just ask Shawn Thornton.

But right or wrong, things were different in 1997. Enforcers were still expected to police the game, and that meant extracting payback. McCarty saw an opportunity and he took it. And to be clear, he's absolutely trying to hurt Lemieux here – in his book, he admits to trying to slam his head onto the ice, and claims he intentionally dragged him over to the benches so the players could see the blood. At one point, he even seems to be trying to knee Lemieux in the face.

Through the lens of today, it all looks brutal. Back then, most of us agreed that it was just a guy fulfilling his job description.

Insanity index: 10/10 by today's standards, but more like 5/10 at the time.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Vladimir Konstantinov, Alexei Gusarov, Valeri Kamensky

Their role: Innocent bystanders.

We'll get to the main event in a bit, but first, let's take a moment to recognize the supporting cast. They don't do much other than stand around and stare, but every great battle scene needs a few extras. It's a talented group – it's not like the coaches had sent out the goon squad for this shift – and we thank them for their contribution.

Insanity index: 2/10. In case you're wondering, five of the 12 players on the ice for this massive and brutal line brawl ended up as Hall of Famers. And yes, that includes the guy we have to get to next...

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet