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.
A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.
Flyers Hit Rock Bottom; Grab Shovels
The biggest news of the weekend came on Friday night, when the struggling Flyers faced the Capitals. Despite missing the injured Alexander Ovechkin, Washington pumped five second-period goals past Steve Mason and Ray Emery on its way to building an eventual 7-0 lead. That had Philadelphia fans chanting for GM Paul Holmgren’s job, and set the stage for the game to devolve into a third-period gong show.
You’ve no doubt seen the highlights by now; Wayne Simmonds running anyone he could find, the line brawl that followed, and then Emery’s rink-length dash to fight his unwilling counterpart, Braden Holtby. Goalie fights are usually high entertainment, but this one was different. It was a ridiculous mismatch between a player with a long résumé of fighting experience and one who’d never been part of one at the pro level — and, more importantly, one who hadn’t done a thing to provoke it other than play for a vastly better team.
NHL training camps are beginning to open around the league, and that means that after months of trades, signings, hirings, firings, wild speculation, and unfounded rumors, we can finally declare the 2013 offseason over.
How closely were you paying attention to the summer’s news? Take this handy quiz to find out.
It’s been one of the NHL’s burning questions for the last 14 months: Where would Roberto Luongo wind up?
After losing his job as the Canucks’ starting goaltender to Cory Schneider during last year’s playoff loss to the Kings, Luongo was clearly on his way out of Vancouver. His massive contract was always going to be onerous for a starter, but it was downright impossible for a backup. And so we all waited for the Canucks to move him. And waited. And waited
Well, we finally have an answer to the question: Luongo’s not going anywhere. Schneider is.
The Canucks pulled a draft-day swerve Sunday by sending Schneider to New Jersey in exchange for the ninth overall pick. (Which Vancouver used to select Bo Horvat.) The deal was the highlight of draft day, a true blockbuster that seemed unthinkable even a few days ago.
It was also a deal that answered one question, but created many more. So here are eight new questions for us to ponder in the aftermath.
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.
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:
We’re about a quarter of the way through this truncated NHL season, and that seems like a good time to have a look at some of the players who are putting up impressive numbers so far.
But while it’s not exactly a shock to see names like Stamkos, Crosby, and Rinne near the top of various categories, some of this year’s other leaders are less predictable. Granted, we’re dealing with a dozen games or so in most cases, so your “small sample size” warning light should be blinking rapidly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a moment to recognize some early season surprises.
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.
We’re roughly 10 percent of the way through the NHL season, and that means it’s time for some teams to panic.
Not really, of course. Even in this abbreviated season, jumping to conclusions based on four or five games would be downright irrational. So any of you hockey fans who are completely rational when it comes to your team can go ahead and stop reading right now.
The other 98 percent of you still with me? Good. Let’s hit the panic button.
One note: We’re focused here on teams that are struggling relative to expectations. The Blue Jackets may have been iffy so far, but they’re clearly in rebuilding mode, and just about everyone had already picked them for last place. A team like that can’t be considered to be in panic mode by any reasonable definition.
The same can’t be said for many of the early season’s other underachievers. Here’s a look at some of the teams that aren’t living up to expectations right now:
In case you were busy explaining to your family that you aren't a "doomsday prepper," you're just ready for anything, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Tiger Woods secured his first victory of 2013, easing to a four shot win at the Farmers Open at Torrey Pines. "Winning big tournaments — nothing's better. This is the best feeling in the world," Woods said, before snapping a rubber band on his wrist really, really hard. "Yup, no feeling in the world is better than this one."
It’s probably foolish to try to read anything into two days’ worth of games, especially when half the players in the NHL are still trying to get back to pre-lockout form. But that’s no reason not to try, so here are 10 random observations from the NHL’s opening weekend:
The Blues made a statement
The St. Louis Blues entered the season as a trendy pick to win the Western Conference. They looked the part Saturday, pummeling the Detroit Red Wings, 6-0, and outshooting them, 17-2, in a first-period display that played out as a near-perfect depiction of Ken Hitchcock hockey.
The game also featured the breakout performance of opening weekend, with Blues rookie Vladimir Tarasenko scoring a pair of goals, including a filthy individual effort in his NHL debut. The 21-year-old 2010 first-round pick has spent the last few seasons in the KHL, and could make a major impact if he can bring consistent production to a Blues offense that wasn’t exactly intimidating last year.
But while Tarasenko could be the league’s next big star, let’s hold off on the hype until we see him do it against an NHL-caliber defense.
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.