A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.
The Stats Guys Are Happy, So the Leafs Must be Losing
Early in the season, we presented the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs as the canary in the advanced-stats mine shaft — the ultimate test case of everything that hockey’s wave of new metrics and data-based analytics thought it knew about what drives success. We've learned the numbers point to the critical importance of possession. Teams that control the puck — and use that control to direct a lot of shots at the net — usually win. Teams that can’t do it usually lose.
But occasionally we see a short-term outlier, and last year’s Toronto team was one. The stats guys said they couldn’t keep winning that way. The Maple Leafs insisted that they could. And over the season’s first few weeks, it looked like Toronto was going to pull it off once again. Leafs fans rejoiced. Old-school media gloated. Celebratory T-shirts were, literally, printed up.
Those days suddenly feel like a very long time ago. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a free fall.
Four weeks into the NHL season, several teams are off to great starts. The Sharks and Avalanche have been virtually unbeatable, and the Lightning, Ducks, and Maple Leafs have also had an impressive opening month. At the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Sabres, Flyers, and Oilers are off to the kind of starts that can torpedo a team’s playoff hopes before the calendar even flips over to November.
Nothing has been as extreme as what happened last year, when the Blackhawks made it to the second half of the lockout-shortened season before suffering a regulation loss. They shattered the NHL record with their 21-0-3 start, coasted to the Presidents’ Trophy, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Of course, not every early-season streak — good or bad — will lead to such a predictable ending. So let’s see if we can learn anything about what to expect by looking back at five of the greatest starts in NHL history, along with five of the worst.
Here are 10 vaguely connected thoughts from six hours of opening-night hockey.
The good and the bad of pregame ceremonies
The first game on the schedule came to us from Montreal, so you know there had to be a pregame ceremony. And indeed, the new season was welcomed into existence by this:
I know I can lose my Canadian passport for saying this, but that was awful, right? It was a ceremony involving the Habs and dimmed lights and a torch, so we’re all supposed to nod reverently and pretend that it was fantastic (and most Montreal ceremonies are). But that one didn’t work.
The basic premise was apparently “What if we made every Canadiens player awkwardly hold a torch at center ice while everyone stared at them for 30 seconds?” As it turns out, a player in that situation has only a handful of options:
• Stare straight ahead like a badass (P.K. Subban)
• Try to stare straight ahead like a badass and fail (Alex Galchenyuk)
In case yinz were busy getting to Pittsburgh to wait, yinz? Who the hell are yinz? Anyway, here's what you may have missed in sports on Tuesday:
Oh my goodness, hockey's back? Hockey's back! And with it came a barrage of goals from defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago, which beat Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, 6-4, in its season opener. "Ten goals?" yelled 58-year-old Blackhawks fan Gary Habermeyer. "What the hell is this garbage? Polo? What happened to hockey?" When his son-in-law Dan Nielson tried to explain that there were a number of offseason rule changes put in place by the NHL to increase scoring, Habermeyer slammed down the legs of his Barcalounger and shoved a finger in Nielson's face. "I'll tell you what the problem is," Habermeyer shot back. "It's your generation. A bunch of showboaters. No one willing to do the hard work. No one willing to play defense. Patrick Kane? That's just a child wearing skates carrying around a big stick. When things get hard he'll just shut down the government. Not like Bobby Hull. Now there was a real man. Don't look at your phone when we're having a heart-to heart conversation!" But Nielson didn't look up from his phone, as he was texting his wife, Bridget, to say that she owed him more than one for spending the evening bonding with her father, and also to ask what Patrick Kane had to do with the government shutdown.
Pittsburgh's battery of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin made sure the Pirates' first postseason trip in 21 years would not be a one-game affair, as they topped the Cincinnati Reds, 6-2, in the NL wild-card playoff. "I just keep thinking, What could I have done differently?" said Reds manager Dusty Baker after the game. Baker then took a moment to think back over the events of the game, during which he managed to use seven pitchers without deploying superstar closer Aroldis Chapman, before adding, "And the answer is nothing."
Last night, television sets across the continent were tuned in to a depraved world of unimaginable violence, horrifying bloodshed, and an almost total absence of morality on the part of everyone involved.
Or, if you wanted something a little less intense, you switched away from the Toronto-Buffalo preseason game and watched Breaking Bad instead.
Yes, the Maple Leafs and Sabres got a little bit rowdy on Sunday. The game was the second half of a home-and-home that hadn’t actually featured all that much bad blood. Sure, there had been a few scraps, because this is the preseason and it’s practically mandatory that every game feature several meaningless fights between guys who are about to be cut. But the overall mood had been almost chipper, even including some comic relief in the form of a novelty shootout attempt by Paul Ranger during Saturday night’s game.
And then I posted the link on Twitter, and immediately got a steady stream of replies from hockey fans like this and this and this. The message was clear: You’re letting the Leafs off too easy.
Toronto has had a busy offseason, and many of the moves have been, shall we say, divisive. On Twitter, call-in shows, comment sections, and anywhere else Leaf fans voice their opinions, there’s been a very vocal minority saying, essentially, “This team doesn’t know what it’s doing and its offseason has been a disaster." To which a different vocal minority replies: “Shut up, you guys are always so negative, everything is going to be fine." (As for the majority of Leaf fans, they’re still staring stoically at their televisions from the same seat in which they watched the third period of Game 7.)
So, you wanted a breakdown of the Leafs’ offseason so far — you’ve got it. Has Toronto’s decision-making really been as bizarre as the doom-and-gloom crowd would have us believe? Let’s grab a list of their most significant moves, fire up the trusty Bizarro-meter™, and figure this out.
By now, hockey fans have probably seen the video of a group of Toronto Maple Leafs fans watching last week’s Game 7 loss to the Bruins. If you haven’t, it’s below. Fair warning: It’s downright painful to watch.
You don’t have to be a Leaf fan or even follow hockey to understand what you’re witnessing. If you’ve been a die-hard fan of a team in any sport for long enough, chances are you’ve suffered through watching a game like that. Depending on which teams you follow, you may have been there far more often than you’d care to remember.
There’s no right or wrong way to react to the sight of your favorite team self-destructing on national television. But through the years, fans seemed to have developed a variety of methods for handling it. The next time you have to sit through a sports disaster for the ages, here are 20 different types of unhappy sports fans you might find yourself in the room with.
There’s a secret that Toronto fans aren’t supposed to talk about, but after what happened Monday night, I don’t care about anything anymore, so here it is: Heading into Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, Leafs fans were OK with losing.
Not "OK" as in we wouldn't care. Leafs fans wanted a win, were hoping for a win, and — in some cases — may even have talked ourselves into expecting a win. And we were ready for the three hours of agony we knew were coming. A Game 7 in the NHL playoffs is pure torture, and Leaf supporters were feeling that every bit as much as fans of the Bruins.
But there was an insurance policy, because the 2013 Leafs season was already a success. A team that hadn’t made the playoffs in seven seasons and was expected to miss them yet again had ended the drought. Young players who’d been written off as busts suddenly emerged. A franchise that floundered for a decade had finally found an identity. And though they were written off after falling behind three games to one in a series against a team that had spent the last few years kicking sand in their faces, the Leafs clawed back with a pair of gutsy wins to force a deciding game.
A loss would sting for a while, sure. But it couldn’t really hurt, not the way big losses are supposed to. It couldn’t leave a scar, whether it came in a blowout or sudden death or somewhere in between.
In case you were busy trying to prevent the refrain from Close Encounters of the Third Kind from morphing into the theme from The Sting in your mind, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
The Bruins overcame a 4-1 third-period deficit before completing the comeback with a Patrice Bergeron overtime winner as Boston eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from the NHL playoffs in a heartbreaking Game 7. While congratulations are in order for Boston, it should also be noted that the devastating loss was taken well by the people of Toronto, who, luckily, are fairly agnostic toward the game of hockey and have a very limited history of suffering with the town's most popular team.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat dominated the Chicago Bulls on both ends of the court en route to an 88-65 win at United Center. Diminutive Bulls guard Nate Robinson, who had starred earlier in the series, was held without a field goal in the defeat, which he attributed after the game to being, "Yeah, shorter than everyone else. That's why. Guess after all these years that finally caught up to me. It wasn't at all because of Miami's defense combined with a little bit of fatigue. It's my genes. Thanks, Randy Newman."
In case you were busy asking, "yeah, but when is Spoiled Only-Child Day?" here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
Tiger Woods won his second career Players Championship and his fourth PGA Tour event this year, finishing the tournament at 13-under. Woods benefited from Sergio Garcia's quadruple-bogey on TPC's iconic 17th hole. "I can't believe it," Tiger said after the tournament, "I thought for sure I was in trouble. You don't just stare down Sergio Garcia and live to tell the tale. I'm shocked that he made it easy for me. Shoooooocked." When told of Woods's comments, Garcia said, "Why? What's his problem, man? Guy has everything. He has a boat that holds other boats in it. He has a trophy case that is just all of the trophies he doesn't like melted down and turned into a trophy case. Why's he gotta come after me? What's he compensating for? What trouble has Tiger f-ing Woods ever had to deal with? Can we talk about that for a second? Can we talk about Tiger Woods's hypothetical personal troubles?" When told of Garcia's questions, Woods asked, "Wasn't he married to Greg Norman's daughter?" before winking provocatively at the press corps. When told of Tiger's wink, Sergio let out a frustrated scream. When told of Sergio's scream, Tiger let out a sarcastic chuckle. When told of Tiger's sarcastic chuckle, Sergio sighed. When told of Sergio's sigh, Tiger fist-pumped. When told of Tiger's fist pump, Sergio's lip began to quiver. When told of Sergio's lip quiver, Tiger didn't look up from his dinner of truffles and lobsters. When told of Tiger's feast, Sergio let one tear trickle down his cheek. When told of Sergio's tear, Tiger turned his laptop toward the reporter talking to him; the laptop had a really smug animated GIF playing on loop. When told of Tiger's GIF burn, Sergio asked, "Isn't that pronounced with a hard 'G,' like Garcia?" But it isn't, and when a reporter went to tell Tiger of Sergio's foolishness, he was too busy watching someone polishing his trophy case made of trophies to acknowledge the reporter's existence.
Even with Stephen Curry at less than full strength, the Golden State Warriors evened up their series with the San Antonio Spurs with a 97-87 overtime win. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was concerned after the game, saying, "Now that Curry is banged up, Mark Jackson discovered he's allowed to rest him. That sprained ankle cost us a massive competitive advantage in this series."
Playoff time in Toronto and Ottawa used to mean the Battle of Ontario. That was the creative nickname slapped onto the rivalry between the two teams who faced each other four years out of five from 2000 to 2004. Fans of either team don’t need to be reminded how that went: The Leafs won all four series, in increasingly cruel fashion.
This season marks the first time since 2004 that both teams are in the NHL playoffs, although this time they are not facing each other. This week, I dropped by Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to take in a pair of Game 4s.
In case you were busy watching The Great Gatsby in 3-D as an ill-advised cram session for your 11th-grade English final, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
The Miami Heat rebounded from a disappointing Game 1 defeat by pasting the Chicago Bulls, 115-78, to even up their second-round series. After a pair of ejections, the Bulls found themselves playing without Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, meaning they had to play a mostly reserve lineup of B.J. Armstrong, Jud Buechler, Toni Kukoc, Bill Wennington and Luc Longley. Despite the influx of forgotten veterans, the oldest player on the court remained Heat reserve Juwan Howard, who was inactive with "being tired, man; real, real tired."
Klay Thompson had 34 points and 14 rebounds as the Golden State Warriors held off the San Antonio Spurs, 100-91. Midway through Thompson's explosive first half, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was seen staring at the Warriors' wing, mumbling, "decent athleticism, floor-stretching 3-point shooting, on a rookie contract … how do I not possess him?" Popovich then wiped off the small amount of drool that had collected at the corner of his mouth, snapped at Spurs guard Danny Green for being a "lollygagger," before making a mental note to himself to take the title of "general manager" back from R.C. Buford after the game.
In case you were out meeting the Mets, meeting the Mets, stepping right up and greeting the Mets, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
The Golden State Warriors blew a 16-point lead, and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili hit a game winning 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left in the second overtime as the Spurs took Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal at home, 129-127. The final result overshadowed an epic performance from Stephen Curry, who played every minute of the game and scored 44 points. "It's too bad that I'm not allowed to come out of games," Curry said afterward. "I really could've used the rest at the start of the fourth quarter so that I didn't lose the accuracy on my jumper." He then paused and added, "It's weird that everyone else came out for at least a little bit. I wonder why the rules are different for me." Curry then shrugged, before collapsing in a fatigued heap under the weight of his own shoulder movement.
An injury-ravaged Chicago Bulls team shocked the defending champion Heat in Miami, 93-86. The Bulls closed the game on a 10-0 run, which once again raises the question: Can LeBron get it done in the postseason? Hold on. Let me watch some tape of LeBron from last postseason really quickly oh oh, wow, yeah, he totally can. Never mind.
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.
The NHL playoffs are here, and if you cheer for one of the 16 teams that made the cut, you know what you need to do: Put fresh batteries in the remote, kiss your loved ones good-bye, and get ready for the emotional roller coaster that you’re about to ride.
But what if your team didn’t make it? What if you find yourself looking for a bandwagon to jump on over the next few weeks? Well, in that case you could refuse to do that because bandwagon-jumpers are the absolute worst fans in sports better choose carefully!
It’s not an easy decision. In fact, choosing a temporary team can be one of the toughest calls a sports fan can make. You want a team that’s fun to watch, is riding a nice story, and preferably has a chance to win at least a round or two. You might prefer a franchise with some recent success, but not so much that you seem like a front-runner. And of course, you’ll want to be associating yourself with a worthy fan base, even if the relationship is only going to be short term.
I’m here to help. So I went through all 16 playoff teams and ranked them in terms of their desirability as a bandwagon destination. If you want someone to root for during the postseason but you’re not sure which team to choose, consult this handy guide to make sure you don’t make a decision you’ll regret.