This week, Grantland's Katie Baker will be previewing the NHL playoffs' first-round series. Today: Senators-Canadiens and Rangers-Capitals. Read Tuesday's installment here and Wednesday's here.
Ottawa Senators (7) at Montreal Canadiens (2)
Backstory: While it might not have been all that much of a stretch to predict that Ottawa and Montreal would both make it to the playoffs, no one could have expected that things would unfold quite like this. The Senators, who took the Rangers to seven games last year in the first round, lost three key players (captain Jason Spezza, goalie Craig Anderson, and golden child Erik Karlsson) to major injury, but managed to remain in postseason contention through focused play by a merry and motley band of guys. Get coach Paul MacLean that Jack Adams Award already, will ya?
This week, Grantland's Katie Baker will be previewing the NHL playoffs' first-round series. Today: Maple Leafs–Bruins, Islanders-Penguins, and Sharks-Canucks. Read yesterday's installment here.
Toronto Maple Leafs (5) at Boston Bruins (4)
Backstory: At last! The Toronto Maple Leafs ended their reign atop the hockey playoff-drought power rankings by finally qualifying for the first time in seven seasons. (Congratulations, Edmonton Oilers, you're our new biggest loser!) Now they'll try to erase another unsavory piece of history: their 46-year Stanley Cup drought. Toronto owes much of its success to goaltender James Reimer, who finished this season with a .924 save percentage and helped nip Roberto Luongo chatter in the bud. They've been led offensively by Phil Kessel (52 points), Nazem Kadri (44), and James van Riemsdyk (32) this season.
The Bruins limp into the postseason having won just three of their last 10 games down the stretch and fallen out of the Northeast Division's top slot on the last day of the regular season. They'll welcome back 13-goal scorer Nathan Horton, who missed five games because of an upper-body injury, and rely on contributions from the likes of David Krejci, Tyler Seguin, and Patrice Bergeron for offense. The good news is that when you have a guy like Zdeno Chara on your team — and you've got Tuukka Rask having an excellent season in net — the playoffs become a little easier.
In the next few hours, a winning-goal scorer will think briefly about his accomplishment, and he will shrug and toothlessly smile. "Hey, that's playoff hockey," he will say, as if that explains it. In another room not far away, a heavy and defeated defenseman will shake his head, trying to find an answer for what went wrong. "We can't be making these mistakes," he will say. "This is playoff hockey."
The concept of playoff hockey is like the notion of wellness: It's an ideal, an asymptote, something to strive for and live by but not something that can be explained other than to crane your neck and give a head nod when a living example walks by. When it comes to wellness, routine begets stability and control. In playoff hockey, familiarity breeds sweet, sweet contempt.
And coming off a lockout-shortened season, this particular edition of playoff hockey ought to be as insane as ever. We'll be previewing the postseason series that begin this week. Here's a look at the three games making up the playoffs' opening schedule tonight.
The man in the St. Cloud State University jacket sitting at the hotel bar in Pittsburgh leaned over Wednesday evening and made a confession. "Ka-winna Wa-keena Coo-weepak I don't know how the hell it goes!" He was referring to Quinnipiac University, the top-seeded hockey team that St. Cloud will face Thursday night in the semifinals of the NCAA Frozen Four. And he wasn't the only one who felt a little bit lost. "Where is St. Cloud State, anyway?" I overheard someone say earlier this week as she looked up at the giant banners in Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center that named this year's four national championship contenders (Yale, UMass-Lowell, Quinnipiac, and St. Cloud State).
For the record, it's pronounced "KWIN-ni-pee-ack, and St. Cloud State is in Minnesota, but you can't blame either of these folks for not knowing. It's not uncommon for a relative unknown to work its way into the final rounds of the NCAA tournament; Ferris State and Union were part of last season's Frozen Four, while Bemidji State made it in 2009. But what's unusual this year is that none of college hockey's typical powerhouses will be there alongside any newcomers.
There are umpteen NHL games going on at any given time, and it's always hard to know how to allocate your attention. Here are our recommendations for the most interesting of the week's many matchups.
New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET MSG / MSG 2 / MSG +2
It was only last June that the Rangers and Devils were facing off in the Eastern Conference finals, but it might as well have been forever ago. This season, the two teams have both found themselves mired in mediocrity, with their playoff odds currently lingering at 54.8 percent (Rangers) and 49.8 percent (Devils), according to Sports Club Stats, though they have taken different paths to get here.
There are umpteen NHL games going on at any given time, and it's always hard to know how to allocate your attention. Here's our recommendation for the most interesting of the week's many matchups.
Anaheim Ducks at Minnesota Wild Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET Fox Sports West 2/Fox Sports North
When the Chicago Blackhawks' prosperous romp through the NHL was finally stopped by the Colorado Avalanche on Friday — and stomped on by the Edmonton Oilers two days after that — the most noteworthy thing atop the Western Conference standings wasn't that Chicago had taken some sort of Secretariat-style lead on its opponents — it was that after all that, the Blackhawks actually weren't very far ahead of the flying-under-the-radar Anaheim Ducks.
There are umpteen NHL games going on, and it's always hard to know how to allocate your attention. Here's our recommendation for the most interesting of the week's matchups.
Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET CSN Chicago/Fox Sports North
Colorado Avalanche at Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET NBCSN
Welp, here's when you know we might be reaching Peak Nonpointlessness Streak: SportsCenter is sending a reporter — please be Stephen A. — to Tuesday night's Blackhawks-Wild game, as Chicago looks to continue its historic run. What I like most about this particular streak is that theoretically, a team could come along next year with an 0-0-23 start and wipe the record book clean. I kid, I kid — stop looking at me with those Toews Death Stare masks! Here's something that genuinely is kind of amazing about what the Blackhawks have done, though: All three of their extra-time losses have come in shootouts, not during overtime. Seven times, they've come out of overtime or a shootout with a win — including Sunday, when their win over the Red Wings came with this peacocky Patrick Kane make:
With nine NHL games scheduled for Tuesday night and another four on Wednesday, it's hard to know how to allocate your attention. Here's our recommendation for the most interesting of the week's early matchups.
Sunday night was the premiere of the 22nd season of The Amazing Race, the round-the-world reality competition on CBS that turns pairs of contestants into far-flung Carmen Sandiegos as they vie for a seven-figure prize. And amid the usual crop of globe-searching souls this time around — the two hot blonde country singers; the nearly identical bespectacled doctors; the mulleted rednecks; the tear-jerking father-son pair — was the duo of Bates and Anthony Battaglia, hockey-playing American brothers.
Bates Battaglia was selected by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the 1994 draft — that's like being a living snapback hat, really — and scored 198 points in a career that included stints in Colorado, Washington, Toronto, and Carolina (where he had his career-best season in 2001-02). His brother Anthony was a college hockey player who has remained in various minor leagues ever since, losing his two front teeth somewhere along the way. With their giant arms, they're intimidating — though compared with the group of Battaglia Brothers from whom they are descended, they're practically teddy bears.
The brothers, longtime Amazing Race enthusiasts, submitted themselves for that most universal of reasons: watching the show, they figured they could do all of that. In the premiere they traveled to Bora Bora, skydived and built sand castles, flirted with the country singers, and (spoiler alert!) finished second overall, despite missing the earlier of two fights out of LAX. Already a good showing, and one that prompted the thought: Which of the other countless hockey relatives out there would make for good reality TV? Let's take a look at these real-life hockey families, and the fake (FOR NOW!) reality shows where they could thrive.
It was fitting, really, that the most recent round of bad news for the Phoenix Coyotes was released late last week. The announcement that prospective team owner Greg Jamison had failed to raise enough money to buy the unwanted franchise was made because of a January 31 deadline with the city of Glendale, Arizona, where the team's arena was built in 2003. But really, the timing made even more sense than that. What better moment to subject everyone to such a bleakly repetitive outcome than just before Groundhog Day?
On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
I don't know if something as unabashedly macro as the Super Bowl could ever be considered a microcosm for anything, but here's what I'd say: It seems almost stupidly fitting, after a season in which the NFL's commissioner displayed an uncharacteristic surplus of political ineptitude, that the league could not manage to keep its own power on. And it seems just as fitting that one of the more entertaining NFL seasons in recent memory climaxed near the goal line, with a quarterback who represents the possibilities of the future ultimately in charge of the game's result. The NFL is great, and the NFL is dysfunctional. It lives in the light, and it lives in the dark. — Michael Weinreb
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.
For Eli Manning, the year 2012 has gone pretty much like so many Giants games — and even seasons — have through the years. You've got your wild inconsistency, with its mind-changing highs (remember all the Hall of Fame talk in February?) and derptastic lows (last weekend in Atlanta). You've got your blowout games followed directly by hapless stinkers. You've got pranks, performances, and awkward photos; you've got pick-sixes and hung heads and submissive shoulder shrugs. But through it all, one thing will always be a constant: He'll always be good old Eli, and all he'll ever want to do is Play Good Football.
It was a year that provided plenty of personalities, story lines, and moments, but the question is, which of those moments got their due and which did not? Could LeBron James actually be underrated? Could the Olympics? They just might be.
Underrated: LeBron James's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Indiana
Everyone remembers the 45-point evisceration of Boston on the road in an elimination game, and the ultra-efficient inside-out torching of the Thunder in the Finals. But Game 4 against the Pacers has sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, which can happen, I guess, when a game kicks off one of the greatest 15-game stretches in the entire history of a sport. Miami felt like it was on the verge of a franchise-altering crisis going into Game 4, down 2-1 to a feisty Indiana team and missing Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade had shot 2-of-13 and snapped at Erik Spoelstra during a Game 3 blowout loss. It wasn't an elimination game, but in that moment it was hard to imagine Miami coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a Pacers club that clearly didn't fear them.
And when Miami fell behind by 10 points in the first half of Game 4, looking a bit listless, it was tempting to start thinking about the consequences of a conference semifinals loss. Would they make a panic trade of one of the stars? Would they conclude James and Wade just couldn't coexist well enough to win a title? Would they fire Spoelstra before his extension — which was signed before the season — even kicked in?
Then LeBron and Wade went absolutely bananas, scoring 38 straight points for Miami in a second-half stretch for the ages. It wasn't just the production; it was the way it looked. Both were cutting actively off the ball and feeding each other for the sorts of semi-improv scores we all envisioned when they teamed up. Spoelstra began leaning on sets in which Miami cleared one side of the floor for LeBron and letting James go to work. He was dominant in those sets, which were rarely a major part of Miami's offense before, and they morphed into post-ups as the playoffs wore on — the post-ups for which Oklahoma City had no answer. It all just came together, at a startling speed. James finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds, and nine assists, numbers that no other player has ever put up in a postseason game since the mid-1980s. He hit post-up shots, jumpers, graceful floaters over Roy Hibbert in the lane — shots he just didn't quite have down even two or three seasons before. It was masterful, and the Heat needed every bit of it. — Zach Lowe