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The Ying and Yang of P.K Subban

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A few years back, my dad and I went to a Toronto Marlies/Hamilton Bulldogs game. I honestly don’t remember too much about the game except for P.K. Subban.

 

It wasn’t that he was everywhere or made some memorable play – although he checked a guy through the glass, which was amazing. No, what I remember most was his presence: when he was on the ice, he just popped out like the message in a magic eye puzzle. It was pretty cool.

 

So I guess I’ve been a fan of him for a while, watching the ups and downs of his short career. And there’s been more than a few: a contract dispute where he missed a few games, a Norris trophy and many, many controversies. See, the thing about Subban is he works people up almost as much as Sean Avery once did. But more than that, Subban is a good player. He’s very good and arguably the best defenseman in the NHL.

 

There are many invalid and moronic reasons he gets so much flak – one’s I’ll leave unsaid because I’m completely unqualified to discuss them – but there’s good ones, too: he occasionally makes a dirty play. I think a good example of both kinds of criticism came into play the other night, during the first game of the Montreal/Ottawa playoff series.

 

I’m going off the top of my head here, but I think there’s been sixty million-plus words written about Subban slashing Mark Stone’s wrist and the immediate backlash. Subban was given the boot, which since it happened so early in the game was effectively a one-game suspension; Stone sustained a micro fracture to his wrist but hasn’t missed either game of the series.

 

The takes came both quickly and hot in the hours after the slash. They ranged from “Subban slash deserved multi-game suspension” to casting doubt on Stone’s injury. Ottawa coach Dave Cameron made a vague threat against the Habs: “when one of their best players gets slashed, just give us five. It’s not that complicated,” he said per a TSN report. That remark’s in poor taste, but given the context, I’m not getting bent out of shape. Indeed, things on Twitter got a little crazier, but that’s the nature of that beast.

 

By the time game two rolled around, I was primed for something crazy: a physical game, one where the Sens crash the net and try to rattle netminder Carey Price or maybe a cheap shot against Subban. It didn’t work out that way, but it ended up as a hell of a game. And again, Subban was the story.

 

If the first game was of the more frustrating side of Subban’s game, the second was one showcasing his positive side. When he was on the ice, he again just popped up over everyone else. Which was a lot, since his 29 minutes of ice time was the most of any Habs skater.

The goal in the second is the lasting impression. It was an amazing shapshot, an absolute beauty from the top of the circle that blew right by Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond.

 

But there were other moments, too. One that sticks out for me was a late shot where he had the angle but didn’t quite get as much of the puck as he probably would’ve liked and didn’t score. Another is how he was right there on the ice when Alex Galchenyuk scored the OT winner, too.

 

I think the thing with Subban is how he can be frustrating but also exciting. I can’t think of another defenceman I enjoy watching as much as I do Subban, but I can’t think of anyone who generates as much controversy as he does, too. And again, most of it isn’t his fault: I completely believe Subban is held to a different standard and is criticized for things most of the NHL could get away with (ie: he celebrates too much, whatever that means).

 

But there’s certainly a ying and a yang to him. There are going to be games where he’s frustrating and games where he’s exciting. And man, that goal on Friday night. At his best, there’s nobody as exciting as Subban.

Written by M.

April 18, 2015 at 11:56 am

2014 NHL Playoff Picks – First Round

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Something of an annual tradition around here: picks for each round of the NHL playoffs.

Eastern Conference

(1) Boston over (WC) Detroit in six

I’m still not quite used to Detroit being in the Eastern conference, so it’s a little weird to see them playing Boston in the first round. It’s actually the first time since 1957 they’ve played at all; back then, Boston won in five before getting trounced by Montreal in the final. And yes, the Leafs weren’t in the playoffs that year either. Funny how things change. Anyway: this year, I expect Boston to hold off the Red Wings. With Tukka Rask, they’ve got arguably the best goalie in the conference and Jerome Iginla’s had his best season in years.

(3) Montreal over (2) Tampa Bay in seven

This could be a close one. In four meetings this season, Montreal’s won just one but lost in overtime once and in a shootout twice. They’ve been outscored eight to five, their last meeting was the only one decided in regulation. I’m pulling for Montreal this postseason and I think they’re coming into the playoffs on a nice streak, winning eight of their last 11 games – although I should note Tampa’s won their last four. I expect a close series regardless, so I’m going with who I’d like to see move on.

(1) Pittsburgh over (WC) Columbus in four

I haven’t caught too many Pens games this year, but the game they played against Philadelphia last weekend was one of the best I saw this season. Sure, they lost, but they looked great. Columbus? I haven’t caught them once, but I feel confident writing them off: they’ve lost all five games against the Pens this year and were outscored seven to 16. Nobody dismantled them as thoroughly this year.

(4) Philadelphia over (3) New York Rangers in six

Again, could be a close one. They’ve split their four meetings this year, including two in March. I’m going to give the edge to Philly based on my limited exposure to them: I enjoyed the way they came back against the Penguins last weekend in particular. Either way, this will be a fun series. I bet NBC gets the best ratings of any series with this, too.

Western Conference

(1) Colorado over (WC) Minnesota in five

Remember when the Avalanche were a doormat? It doesn’t feel like that long ago. But then again, it doesn’t seem like that long ago when they were winning Cups with Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Maybe I’m getting old.  Coming into game one, the Avalanche look a little banged up – they’ve got four people listed as questionable – which might tip the scales a little. But I don’t think too much of that either. They’ve beat Minnesota four times this year and their lone loss came in a shootout. And Semyon Varlamov’s been nothing short of fantastic this year, too: a .927 save percentage, 2.41 GAA and 41 wins, if you’re into that sort of thing. This one could be over in a hurry.

 (3) Chicago over (2) St. Louis in six

There’s a part of me that doesn’t trust the Blues. They collapsed in the playoffs last year, blowing a two-game lead to the Kings and the year before lost in four straight, also to LA. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t ever feel confident taking them in the postseason. But that’s just a gut feeling, so here’s some numbers: this season, the Blackhawks beat the Blues twice. Twice more, they took them to a shootout. They’ve outshot them four times, too. I’m sensing a trend here: usually the team who can regularly outshoot the other will win. That’s not a gut feeling, that’s called being a Leaf fan.

(1) Anaheim over (WC) Dallas in five

This is the first time since 2008 the Stars have been to the postseason, I believe, and with 91 points they’re also the worst. But somehow, they’ve managed a winning record against the Ducks: two wins, including a blowout 6-3 victory back in November. But they’re still the worst team in the playoffs and it’d be a big upset to upend the Ducks, who’ve won more than anyone in the West. I’ll hedge a little: the Stars will take a game, but probably not much more than that.

(3) Los Angeles over (2) San Jose in seven

There’s an ad on American TV where two people meet in a bar through some sports dating app and each is a fan of the above teams. In real life, I can’t imagine anyone resorting to online dating really gives a shit about who the other cheers for (I’d be happy they actually like hockey, myself) but maybe I’m a weirdo. After all, I didn’t know this was even a rivalry, really. And it’s a curious one: the Sharks have a better overall record, but the Kings have played them hard this season. In five meetings, the Sharks won just once in regulation, a 2-1 win in early April (they also won a shootout in November). And the one game where the Sharks outshot LA was a 1-0 Kings win. Confusing, eh? Last year, the series went seven games, the final two decided by a goal apiece. I’m willing to bet something similar happens this year and again, I like the Kings.

Two Game Sevens, Two Heartbreakers

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The cool thing about sports is how it makes you care about stuff you really have no control over and no real stakes riding on. The outcome doesn’t really mean anything to you or me or anyone without a stake in the team itself. And even then, their stakes aren’t really all that huge. Toronto wasn’t going to go into the red if they didn’t make the second round.

But still: I cared about the Colts and the Maple Leafs. And on Monday night, both teams lost heartbreakers in game seven of their respective series. The Colts were down most of the game, tied it up late and right as the period wound down, London forward Bo Horvat scored and put the Knights ahead, so late the faceoff was just a formality.

It was as close as a buzzer-beater as I’ve seen in hockey in a long, long time (since maybe that Canucks/Flames series in the late 80s). It was that old line from ABC Sports: the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of victory, all that. The ref waved it off, then it went upstairs and the goal was allowed as the London crowd collectively lost their shit. Within a few minutes, the Colts cleared the ice, the Knights were posting team photos to Instragram (what a brave new world we live in) and I focused on the Leaf game.

And here too was, I suppose, agony. Toronto went ahead early and kept scoring on Rask. Kessel had a goal, then so did Kadri. Soon it was 4-1, Toronto. Later in the third, Boston cut it to 4-2 and with just under two minutes left, they pulled Rask for an extra man.

A little postscript for this season: Toronto was bad in their own end all year long. How many games did they have where they got pounded by shots and only Reimer kept them in the game? Shit, even against teams like New Jersey, the Leafs could barely keep the puck out of their own end. When you read tomorrow about how great they were at hitting the other team, remember that you don’t hit players when you have the puck. As I noted before this series, Toronto had one of the worst Fenwick Close numbers heading into the postseason.

So it shouldn’t have been a giant surprise when Toronto coughed up the lead, when Boston controlled the puck late, when the Bruins could just fire off shots as it looked like all the Leafs hung around in front of the net and couldn’t clear it out of their own end. Reimer just looked overwhelmed and, God bless him, he was. He faced more shots than anyone else in the NHL so far. And he got peppered again on Monday night: the boxscore has him facing 35 shots.

What’s there to say about overtime? Toronto came out strong, got a couple of chances and the same thing happened: Boston started forechecking, kept the puck in their hands and fired off shot after shot. And this time Reimer was literally overwhelmed: he was falling over and all outstretched when Patrice Bergeron put one past him six minutes into the extra frame.

Sure, it sucks, but this series was a fun ride. That’s the cool thing about sports: they’re fun as shit. After all, the Leafs were the also-ran in Toronto for a long time. The Jays have a longer playoff drought, but they had the excuse of Yankees/Red Sox payrolls, too. The Raptors haven’t won much in the past nine years, but they made the postseason a couple of times and even won a division title. And the Argos? They just won a Grey Cup, maybe you remember that. It happened on their home turf.

The Leafs lost, but they got into the playoffs. If nothing else, that’s something to hang on to: this season’s been better than any since the 2005 lockout. Things are slowly getting better for the Worst Sports City in the World (TM). I’m just happy they got this far. And besides, I picked Boston to win in six.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Two Game Sevens In the City

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It’s an interesting day today, as the two hockey teams I enjoy watching both have game sevens tonight: the Barrie Colts have game seven of the OHL Finals in London while the Toronto Maple Leafs play game seven of their first round series in Boston. Both games are at the same time, so it’s going to take some creative remote-work to fit them both in, but it’ll be worth the effort.

It’s been a while since I felt so invested in a hockey game. Long enough that I don’t have anything in my archive here I can easily compare it to. I suppose there’s this 2006 post and another from 2007, but both were about the regular season. I’ve written here since 2005, which is just enough time to cover the Leafs postseason gap. So this is new and uncharted territory for this organ.

The first round’s been a mix of rad James Reimer goaltending and Tuukka Rask looking either impregnable  or soft. The series opened with four games with the winning team scored at least four goals, including an overtime game that I regrettably fell asleep watching (because I’m an old man). But in the last two games, it’s  tightened up considerably: games five and six were 2-1 affairs, each won by the Leafs.

They’ve been nerve-wrecking affairs, especially last night when Toronto didn’t score until the second and Phil Kessel put in the eventual game-winner on what looked like a giant fluke: a rebound that bounced to a rushing Kessel, who flipped it into an open net. As I might have said back in my sportswriting days, he took advantage of an opportunity. And truth be told, I didn’t think there was a great many of them; Boston’s defence has been pretty strong through six games and mostly kept Toronto’s scorers in check. For example, through six games, Kadri’s picked up just two assists and hasn’t scored on any of his 13 shots on net; this season, he scored on nearly 17 per cent, fourth-highest on the team.

At the same time, Reimer’s had a bunch of good games. His save percentage is tied with Rask at .932, despite having more goals allowed. This comes from how Reimer’s been peppered with shots through every game: the 237 shots he’s faced is most of any goalie so far. He’s had four games where he faced at least 40 shots and the 43-save performance in game five was one of the best Leaf goaltending performances in recent memory. It’s an easy thing to say about goalies, but he’s been the best Leaf on the ice for nearly every game so far. Watching him this spring has been a blast.

About an hour north of Toronto, the Barrie Colts have also gone through a tear this postseason. They  made quick work of both Kingston and Oshawa, but the series against Belleville was wild, with games swinging back and forth and both Malcolm Subban and Mathias Niederberger making big saves. Two of those games went to overtime and Barrie nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, including a third-period collapse in game six. But they won game seven on the road and moved to the OHL Finals, facing the London Knights.

You may remember how good the Knights were this season. Earlier this year, they went on a tear through the OHL, winning 24 games in a row. They’d finish the regular season with 50 wins, most in the league. Until the finals, they’d lost just two games in the postseason (one of them in double OT) and had two of the league’s best scorers in Max Domi and Bo Horvat, who have combined for 25 goals in 20 games. That’s a pretty good pace.

But Barrie’s has its own scoring monster: Mark Scheifele. Through this postseason he’s come into his own, scoring 41 points in 21 games. The other night, he scored four times in the third period as the Colts came from behind to win. He’s been a beast all season, especially after he returned from a short stint with the Winnipeg Jets. More than anyone else in the series, he’s stood out on the ice: number 19 is usually the guy with the puck and almost always the tallest guy on the ice. Even if Barrie loses tonight, he deserves serious consideration for series MVP.

In all, it’s a blast for as fair-weather a hockey as myself. I mentioned it earlier this season, but this year I’ve really dived into the OHL and this Colts team has been a blast. For one, Scheifele’s one of those players who’s bigger than everyone else and can just dominate on the ice. But there’s also Niederberger, who’s been a standout in net (.927 save percentage and two shutouts) and Zach Hall, who’s picked up 20 points in 18 games. There’s also Anthony Camara, who’s hitting is questionable at best.

These Colts have been a great team to get into junior hockey through; I certainly hope they advance to the Memorial Cup, but I’d be satisfied no matter tonight’s result.

Same thing for the Leafs. It’s been so long since they’ve played a playoff game that I’m just happy they’re even in the postseason at all. That Reimer’s been so much to watch and extended this series to seven games is a bonus. I’m nervous about the games, but it’s a nice feeling. I haven’t felt this way about hockey in a long time.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

It’s been a while and might only be for a while: Leafs Postseason Preview Special

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Tomorrow night, the Toronto Maple Leafs play their first postseason game in what feels like forever (although it’s been all of nine years). I’m excited, although not quite as excited as I thought I’d be, and I’m a little anxious but on the whole, I’m feeling a little pessimistic: it’s been a long time coming and while Toronto was fun this year, I don’t think any rational person thinks the world of this team.

They’re fun and Kadri’s a blast to watch and there’s usually one or two moments a month where I think Reimer all but steals a game, but I don’t think there’s any way they get past the Bruins, ya know? Toronto’s a team with some serious holes. They don’t control the puck and their Fenwick Close  at 43.80% is not good. As recently as April 22, it ranked behind Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Calgary and Florida. They’re a team that allows a ton of shots. And even with one of the better offenses in the league – they scored the 6th most goals in the league – they were scored on a bunch, too: 133 goals allowed, slighting above league average. And that was with James Reimer in net, who’s had one of the best seasons for Leaf goaltender in recent memory.

A short list of albums I like released since the last Leafs postseason appearance: Visions – Grimes; St. Vincent – Strange Mercy; Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall; Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene;  Metric – Live it Out

Still, there are a lot of things to look forward to with this series. I don’t expect much from Phil Kessel, who’ll probably have Zdeno Chara up his ass all series long, but maybe Nazim Kadri or James van Riemsdyk will explode in a game or two. Maybe Tuukka Rask won’t have it on the same night Reimer is locked in. Maybe I won’t get tired of hearing about the Kessel trade, the Raycroft trade or any other of the recent history between these two teams. Maybe I’ll even change my tune on Bob Cole once again and decide he hasn’t lost a step and doesn’t get players mixed up.

I suppose anything is possible in the second season and teams have ridden hot goalies to improbable-seeming wins. And Boston did blow a first-round series against a divisional rival not too long ago…

Some people who have died since the last Leafs postseason game: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Gerald Ford, Jack Layton, Jay Reatard, Evel Knievel, Norman Mailer, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Trish Keenan

Still, if I were going to bet, I’d take Boston. I think the series could end pretty quickly, but my gut’s telling me that Reimer has at least one standout performance in him and I’ve got enough faith in the Leafs to think their offense will better Rask once, too. I hope it’s not on the same night. My biggest worry is if something like this happens:

(CP) Toronto – It took a while, but Boston finally solved the Maple Leafs. Game four of the first round series is likely to be remembered for it’s length, with six sudden-death overtime periods making it one of the longest games in recent history. The clincher came well after midnight, when Nathan Horton put a wrister over the shoulder of Toronto netminder James Reimer to secure a  2-1 victory for the Bruins…

A low-scoring series is what I expect here, even if both teams have good offenses (and Boston’s is stacked, much deeper than Toronto’s). I’ll say Boston in six and hope I’m wrong.

Written by M.

May 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

NHL Lockout Classics, Part One: The best series-deciding game nobody remembers

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The last time there was a lockout, the CBC aired movies on Saturday night and TSN aired a bunch of basketball. This was before TSN2’s launch and before ESPN’s 30 for 30 series gave them a bunch of worthwhile hour-long programs to fill the day. There wasn’t a lot they could have used that drew ratings: they also aired a lot of poker and re-broadcasted stuff from the 70s and 80s. While it was cool seeing old stuff (and I ended up taping a bunch of stuff, some of which helped me out in tape-trading circles), I can’t imagine most people were really into them. Especially with a slate of games everyone already knows about, anyway:

A selection of games TSN rebroadcasted during the 2004-05 NHL Lockout:

  • 1978 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, Toronto v. New York Islanders, Game Seven
  • 1990 Smythe Division Semifinals, Edmonton v. Winnipeg, Game Four
  • 1987 Rendez-Vous Series, NHL All-Stars vs Soviet National Team, Game One
  • 1985 Adams Final, Montreal v. Quebec, Game Seven
  • March 24, 1994, Vancouver @ Los Angeles, Wayne Gretzky scores goal 802
  • 1993 Campbell Conference Final, Los Angeles v. Toronto: Game Seven
  • December 31, 1975, Red Army @ Montreal
  • 1979 Conference Final: Boston v. Montreal, Game Seven
  • 1979 Stanley Cup Semifinal, Montreal v. Toronto, Game Four

Look at those: literally every hockey fan has seen Guy Lafleur score against Boston in 79, knows Gretzky scored more goals than anyone else and couldn’t care less about Toronto gagging like dogs at home against the Kings in 1993. And since the Jets returned to Winnipeg, the novelty of a Jets game has gone out the window.

I do not have an extensive tape library, but I know my vintage NHL broadcasts. I’m probably in a pretty good spot to recommend a few things TSN could air that aren’t especially familiar to most fans. And since TSN isn’t going to air much basketball, and one can only watch the 30 for 30 about the Baltimore Colts marching band so many times, I’m game to recommend some stuff I’d like to watch again. I’ll write up one game every week or so, offering links to it on YouTube whenever possible. Today, it’s a win-or-go-home game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues from the 1981 playoffs. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

October 5, 2012 at 9:00 am

NHL Playoff Second Round Picks

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Given how insane and unpredictable the first round was, I feel pretty confident in my picks. I nailed one of the series – Blues over Sharks in five – and picked the right team in a few others: the Rangers, Devils and Coyotes all moved on. And I’ll admit, I was completely, 100 per cent wrong in my Canucks-in-four pick. Although did anyone see the Kings just obliterating the team with the NHL’s best record?

What’s interesting to me is how close the first round was. 16 games went into overtime, with three of those going to a second OT. Altogether, 32 games were decided by one goal! I don’t remember there ever being a first round this exciting, this close and this much fun to watch. And yes, I’m including 1993, the best NHL postseason ever. It sets a high bar for the second round. Picks follow the jump.
Eastern Conference
(1) New York Rangers v. (7) Washington Capitols
Both of these teams are coming off of gruelling series, with the Caps coming off one where all seven games were decided by one goal. The Caps are playing way better than I thought they were capable of and rookie goalie Braden Holtby has both played the most minutes (449) and faced the most shots (248) of any goalie thus far in the playoffs. Sometimes rookie goalies really catch on in the playoffs: see Cam Ward, Felix Potvin or, most legendarily of all, Ken Dryden. Another stat to look at: how little the Rangers are scoring. They made it through the seven-game series with a goal differential of +1 and scored the fewest of the four teams left in the East. If they’re having trouble scoring before facing the playoffs hottest goalie, what happens when they do? Capitols in six.

Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, warming up before
game six of the Philly/Pittsburgh series

(5) Philadelphia Flyers v. (6) New Jersey Devils 
If the Rangers can’t score, the Flyers sure can: their 30 goals is the most any team has thus far in the playoffs. And don’t look now, but Claude Giroux leads the league in goals and assists. But there’s troubling signs: they also allow a lot of goals (26), by far the most among active playoff teams. And they take a lot of penalties, too: three of the 10 most penalized players thus far are Flyers. And they allowed nine power play goals in their six game series, too. How are the Devils? They scored five power play goals and 18 total, most of any team not in the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia shootout. Now, the Penguins offense is much better than the Devils, but Marty Brodeur has played better than Marc-Andre Fleury and I don’t trust either of Philadelphia’s goalies. Devils in five.

Western Conference
(2) St. Louis Blues v. (8) Los Angeles Kings
This could be a low-scoring series. Both of these teams are coming into this series with hot goalies: Jonathan Quick has a 1.59 GAA and a .953 save percentage, while Brian Elliot has a GAA of 1.37 and a .949 save percentage (not to mention Jaroslav Halak’s 1.73 and .935 stats). And together, each team allowed just eight goals – although the Blues played one game less. On the other hand, the Blues can score. Andy McDonald has eight points through five games and the playoffs best shooting percentage (and 3.2 goals created). The Kings are a nice story and they beat up on a good, if flawed, Canucks team but I don’t see two upsets in a row. Blues in six.

They’re having a fun time, but remember how lucky
 the Coyotes are this postseason!

(3) Phoenix Coyotes v. (4) Nashville Predators
Not exactly a traditional series, eh? The Coyotes got here the tough way, after beating Chicago in a series where five of six went to overtime. And while it’s nice to get the bounces in the extra frame, it’s hard to look past how the games got there: Phoenix coughed up late leads in four games. Yes, Mike Smith has looked good (1.81 GAA, .950 save percentage) and has better stats than Pikka Rinne, but he’s not the problem. The problem lies with Phoenix’s defence, with it feeling like every game was mostly spent in front of Smith, especially in crunch time. The Coyotes feel especially flawed and especially lucky; after manhandling Detroit, Nashville just feels good, man (also they have some stellar crowds). Nashville in five.

Written by M.

April 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm