The NHL playoffs can define a player’s career. It’s when some elevate their games while others crumble, when legacies are made and lost, and when we separate the clutch performers from the choke artists.
There are two schools of thought on all this, and one of them is that everything in that last paragraph is complete nonsense. The playoffs are far too small a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions, and because there’s little evidence that “clutch” even exists in sports, all we're really doing is just crafting lazy and often unfair narratives out of statistical blips that should actually be credited to random chance.
The other school of thought is that while all of that might be true, we don’t care because overreacting to the playoffs is part of the fun of being a sports fan.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going with option no. 2. So here are 10 players that have seen their stock move significantly up or down during the first two rounds.
In case you were busy really getting inside the mind of Barry Zuckerkorn in preparation for the new season of Arrested Development, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The Los Angeles Kings are one step closer to defending their Stanley Cup crown after Jonathan Quick shut out the San Jose Sharks, 3-0, at Staples Center. The Sharks have now gone more than 96 minutes without a goal, which Kings coach Darryl Sutter credits to "playing a clean game, and keeping all the blood off the ice. Joe Thornton sees blood? Patrick Marleau? You've got a feeding frenzy on your hands. But right now they just keep skating by us, real passive, like we're not even there." When asked about the Sharks' home-ice advantage, Sutter added, "Oh, we're in trouble for Game 6. If you think [Sharks coach] Todd McLellan isn't going to gut a seal at center ice before the game just to get things going, you don't know McLellan."
Chris Kreider helped the Rangers avoid a sweep with an overtime goal in New York's 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins. The key moment in the game came in the second period when the Bruins, up 2-0 at the time, gave up a goal when goalkeeper and Klingon warrior Tuukka Rask fell over on a relatively well-defended Rangers breakaway. Rask was defiant after the game when asked if the defeat portended a Rangers comeback, saying, "Hab SoSlI' Quch! (Your mother has a smooth forehead!)" and then laughing heartily before eating what appeared to be a Targ heart out of a Tupperware container.
We’ll use the same format as we did earlier this week — expectations, reality, and whether it will continue — but add a special fourth category to deal with the possible fallout if the player continues to struggle.
Just when we thought we’d seen it all in NHL shootout action, Alex Burrows proved us wrong. Plenty of players have used the ol’ spinorama in a shootout. But none of them ever came up with that whole “ignore the puck entirely when you do it” angle that Burrows broke out Monday:
Presumably, Burrows was hoping Kings goalie Jonathan Quick would be so mesmerized by his moves that he’d vacate the net entirely. Quick refused to bite, unlike some people we could mention.
So yes, the move was a disaster. (And be sure to check out this fantastic frame-by-frame breakdown of Burrows watching the replay.) But in a sense, you can understand what happened here. During regulation play, a breakaway is almost by definition a surprise play that develops in an instant. There’s a smart breakout pass or a great individual effort or a bad turnover, and suddenly someone’s in all alone. At most, that player gets a few seconds to decide what to do. Instinct takes over.
But when the actual hockey game is over and the convoluted individual skills competition starts, players suddenly have time to think about what they should do. And in some cases, as Burrows showed us, they can use that time to over-think things.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. By following just a few simple rules, players could avoid becoming the next Alex Burrows. All they need to do is know their history, learn from the mistakes of others, and observe the 10 Commandments of NHL Shootouts.
There's nothing else in sports quite like the goalie mask, a literal blank slate upon which a goalie — often regarded as the quirkiest guy on his team — gets to broadcast his id to the world. The result, over the years, has been a crazy and compelling collection of cryptic symbols, animal imagery, shout-outs to grandmas and/or sports heroes, terrifying cartoons, and lots and lots of airbrushing. This year, of course, is no exception. Here, we take a look at some of this season's best goalie helmets. (As always, feel free to render your own judgments in the comments!)
Best Literary Reference
"This may be one of the most scary mask[s] I've ever created," uber-popular mask designer David Gunnarsson wrote on his website, describing Dallas goalie Richard Bachman's new look. "We wanted the mask to have the same uncomfortable feeling you have when you just wake up after a nightmare." The helmet features images from The Shining — the famous twins, Jack Nicholson's terrifying eyes — in honor of Stephen King, who once used the nom de plume "Richard Bachman." ("There was a novel by Richard Stark on my desk so I used the name Richard and that's kind of funny because Richard Stark is in itself a pen name for Donald Westlake," King explains on his website, "and what was playing on the record player was "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" by Bachman Turner Overdrive, so I put the two of them together.") It's really too bad we don't have a helmet depicting scenes from King/Bachman's best work, The Long Walk, but I suppose psychological terror is kinda tricky to airbrush.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Kevin Durant scored 27 points and James Harden nailed two clutch fourth-quarter 3s to give the Thunder a 108-103 win over the Spurs and a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals. "We couldn't hit the big shots," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "It's too bad we couldn't get a Harden of our own. We're a little old, and let's face it, it's not easy to get a Harden anyway. Hey, why is everyone giggling? It's not funny. When things got close and the pressure was on, we were soft. Maybe we were anxious, maybe it was a physical issue. But I can't put it any more bluntly: We needed a Harden. We're not the first team to face this problem, and we won't be the last. But I'll tell you this much — we're not getting a Harden this year. We definitely won't get one Wednesday in Oklahoma. In fact, we'll have to face one, which is terrifyi— OK, seriously, guys, what's the joke?"
Here it is, at long last, after three rounds of bruising and bloody playoff hockey: The New Jersey Devils play host tonight to the Los Angeles King in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. It is the matchup everyone predicted at the start of the season and again at the beginning of the NHL playoffs.
I can't say for certain, but there's a pretty good chance that the New York Rangers' John Mitchell was haunted by some fever dreams last night: Think something along the lines of Elephants on Parade, except with the Cheshire grin of Marc-Andre Fleury in place of all the Dumbo heads.
Fleury was in net Thursday night as the Penguins came to Madison Square Garden to take on the Rangers, who held a six-point lead over Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division (and the Eastern Conference). By the end of the night, though, that gap had narrowed to four, as the Penguins defeated New York 5-2 based in large part on the play in net by the goaltender colloquially known to teammates as Flower. He stopped 29 of the Rangers' shots, five of which belonged to poor Mitchell, who was robbed every which way by the 27-year-old netminder. After one sequence in which Fleury, already down on his side after making some pad saves, managed to glove an attempt by Mitchell, the Rangers forward couldn't help but take out his mouth guard so he could laugh.
Earlier this week, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was adamant that he was not in the market for someone to supplement and/or replace Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer in net. "We are not looking for a goaltender at this point," he said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
That was before Gustavsson turned in a clunker of a performance Tuesday night. The Leafs, who are on the playoff bubble, lost to the New Jersey Devils 4-3 in overtime as Gustavsson was weak on the five-hole in regulation and unfortunate with his positioning on the overtime goal, which was headed wide but caromed off his equipment and into the net to erase what had been a late comeback by Toronto.
On Wednesday, Burke changed his tune on TSN Radio. "It's very hard to watch what happened and not wonder if we have enough [in net]," he said, before deploying the tried-and-true double negative: "I'm not sure that we're not going to be in the market [for a goalie] before we're done," he said. "The fact is we're losing games because we're not stopping the puck enough."
It's a tough time for goalies in Toronto, though I did enjoy the way this Toronto Sun headline sought to put a positive spin on whether Burke's words might affect his netminders' performance going forward: "Goalies already felt lowly."
With Toronto one of the teams that might be in the market at the deadline for a goalie, who would potentially be available? Here's a look at some of the names that have been floated as being goalies in play (not just for Toronto, but to other teams who may be seeking help in net) leading up to Monday's trade deadline:
In his 42 starts, Jonathan Quick has given up an average of 1.93 goals per game, making him one of just four NHL goaltenders with a GAA below two. Unfortunately, he's been having this All-Star season behind the league's lowest-scoring team, the L.A. Kings. Quick leads all netminders in shutouts, blanking his opponents six times. In the other 36 games he's played, though, the ones where he's let even just one measly goal trickle past, Quick has come away with a loss 21 times.
Last week, I watched losses no. 20 and no. 21 at Staples Center, where the atmosphere remains vibrant even as the team's offense has not been. The two games were like so many others the Kings have played this year: On Thursday they lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Calgary Flames, and on Saturday they fell 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche. In both games, the Kings scored first but were unable to either add insurance goals or regain the lead after their opponents tied the game.
Two weeks ago, the Minnesota Wild came thisclose to having a 51-year old embroidery store owner named Paul Deutsch suit up as an emergency backup goalie. The Wild's top guy, Niklas Backstrom, was scratched late on game day, Josh Harding would be starting in net -- and it wasn't clear whether the team's preferred backup guy, 21-year-old Matt Hackett of the AHL's Houston Aeros, would be able to make it to the game in time.
While the very best seats for watching the patterns and flow of a hockey game are along the broad side of the rink, sitting right behind a net affords the distinct pleasure of observing one of hockey's most curious creatures in its natural habitat: the goalie. On Thursday night, I saw the L.A. Kings play the Vancouver Canucks at the Staples Center, and got up close and personal with Roberto Luongo (twice) and Jonathan Quick.
There may be no position in all of sports that can more single-handedly and consistently alter the course of a single game, a playoff series, or an entire season than a hockey goalie. (And there's certainly no position in all of sports — or, really, life — that boasts better helmets.) These guys are fearless, flexible, fast — and often fairly unhinged. Here, we salute five of the week's noteworthy performances in net.