Hockey

If you’ve been following the NHL closely for the past few years, and especially the analytics of the league, you’ve known that the Carolina Hurricanes have been at the front of most of the rankings for a while. They’ve been a great possession team since Bill Peters took over as coach, and that hasn’t stopped under Rod Brind’Amour. They’ve been one of the better expected-goal teams too through that time. They just couldn’t get the results to match, because A. they didn’t have any goaltending whatsoever as Scott Darling flamed out and B. they didn’t have a lot of finish. So while they may never give up any chances and get a lot, at the end of the day you still have to make all that count. The Canes didn’t have the sharp end of the stick at either point.

But if you were to design what a perfect Cane player would look like, you’d come up with a fast forward with good hands who was busy at both ends of the ice. They would be smart and under-appreciated by their own team, not realizing all the good work they did and only noticing the neanderthal, outdated things they didn’t that said dunderheaded organization was fixated on.

We give you Nino Neiderreiter an the Minnesota Wild.

For years, Nino has been an analytic darling, and a darling of this blog. He has routinely put up Corsi-shares in the 55% range, and was routinely around five or more points higher than his teammates in attempts-share or expected goals. Nino simply always had the puck in the right end of the ice, and when there he was creating chances better than whatever the opposition could come up with.

And yet Mike Yeo hated him because…well, we don’t know. Didn’t hit or something? Bruce Boudreau only had marginally more use for him, even though he seemed to be perfectly suited for Gabby’s ways.

Nino has never been a prolific scorer, maxing out at 25 two years ago but consistently putting up 20-25 goals. You don’t find those kinds of players just hanging out in the drug store parking lot. Nino was bugged early last year by some rotten luck where he couldn’t get anything to go in. That was the last straw for the Wild, who moved him to Carolina before the deadline for clinically dead Victor Rask. It was a lopsided trade to anyone who was paying attention, which definitely wasn’t Chuck Fletcher in the GM chair.

You can guess where it went from there…he definitely fixed the cable.

Nino popped off for 30 points in 36 games in Raleigh, playing for a coach and team that knew exactly what they had. His attempts per game went up nearly 50%. His expected goals per game doubled. Along with that his shooting-percentage went up 50% as well with the better chances he was getting. That might have something to do with Brind’Amour immediately realizing his skill-set belonged with Sebastien Aho instead of some plug on Minny’s third line. The results are the results. It’s what Nino has always been capable of.

Something has gone off the boil so far this year. Nino and Aho have not been the dominant force they were, with their combined metrics down a ton. It continues a pattern for Nino, who wasn’t very effective in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, though that might have something to do with shooting just 3.8% in the Canes’ run to the conference final. Still, that line’s possession marks are still exemplary, and it should be expected that Nino’s individual marks will round back to where they were.

And like a lot of Canes, Nino has a perfect contract for them. His $5.25M hit is hardly unjust for a player who does the things that Nino does, and it takes him until he’s 31 when you’d expect him to decline and the Canes to move on. They’ve got the rest of his prime years.

It’s the kind of shrewd move that the Canes always seem to make to now be competitive with a limited budget (which could be self-imposed or not). Erik Haula is another one, and he’s got seven goals as he also fits perfectly into what the Canes do. Must be nice.

Hockey

’18-’19: 46-29-7 (99 points) – Lost in Conference Final

2.98 GF/G (16th)  2.71 GA/G (6th)

17.6 PP% (2oth)   81.6 PK% (8th)

54.6 CF% (2nd)   56.4 xGF% (1st)

Something of the feel good story of last season, the Carolina Hurricanes are essentially going to try and run it back again, counting on maturing from youngsters and what is still the best blue line around. There have been a couple smaller additions, a loss of captain, and what feels like a real missed opportunity for the big splash that would have put this team over the top. But hey, their owner sunk an entire football league just to benefit himself, so is anyone really surprised?

Let’s see what’s under the hood here.

Goalies: The Canes have moved on from their partnership of last year, where they alternated between riding the hot streaks of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, and have given the job to Mrazek full-time. That might be a little strange considering that Mrazek’s performance in the playoffs was something you dug out of your ear, but it’s something of Carolina tradition to have a whatsit in goal. Mrazek was very good in the regular season, certainly the best goaltending the Canes have gotten in eons. Mrazek also put up a great season in Detroit once, but there are four seasons of mediocrity in three different places between that and last year, so who is he really?

Mrazek came in over his expected-save-percentage last year (.914 to .916 at evens), and what might be most important is he does that while cheap. Mrazek has only a $3.1M hit, and that matters to Carolina. It’s a shame they didn’t spend it elsewhere that much, though. Still, the Canes make it about as easy as a team can for goalies, as they have the puck all the time. They’ll be counting on that again.

There is a more than decent insurance policy here though in James Reimer. Optimus Reim has an off-year in Florida last season, but had racked up league-average SV%s or better the previous three seasons. He has been a plus-backup for the back half of his career, and the kind that can usurp the top job for a stretch when he gets hot/the starter goes to the zoo for a bit. He has made over 39 starts each of the past three seasons, either due to Luongo’s injury problems or just taking the job, so there is a safety net in net for the Canes. Pretty shrewd here, really.

Defense: Still the team’s strength, even with the subtraction of Calvin de Haan and the addition of Gustav Forsling (assuming he ever gets out of Charlotte, which he shouldn’t). The Canes still roll a top four of Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton, and Jaccob Slavin (and his superfluous c). You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that can match that top four anywhere, and if the bottom pairing becomes a septic tank accident through some combo of Forsling, Haydn Fleury (and his missing e), Trevor van Riemsdyk and his missing talent, or kid Jake Bean, they can just run the top four out there between 40-45 minutes a night and not get too worried about it.

There will be some drama around Faulk this year, as he enters the last year of his deal and the whole will-he-or-won’t-he be traded or re-signed thing. Considering what the Canes could accomplish this year it would be near farce for them to trade Faulk, but one wonders what the actual budget is here for this team and we know how teams are loathe to lose players for nothing, even if they have everything to gain here. Still, it’s not that hard to make a case for the Canes to be division favorites now, and you don’t maintain that status by losing Faulk in the middle of the season.

That behind us, this unit can do just about everything, whether it’s pushing the play and supporting the offense or locking things down. You wish the Hawks took notes.

Forwards: In a dream world, the Canes would have already offer-sheeted Mitch Marner for $12M a year, and gotten ready to be the East favorite. They thought smaller however, signing Ryan Dzingel and trading for Erik Haula, who is just about the perfect Hurricane. They’ll also get a full season out of Nino Neiderreiter this time, another perfect Cane, and maybe the production they get from those three is enough to offset the retirement of Justin Williams as well as boost an offense that needs to be a touch better.

They’ll also expect a leap forward from Andrei Svechnikov and possibly Martin Necas, who was excellent in the AHL last year. They still seem intent on using Jordan Staal as a #2 center, and that’s simply not what he is anymore and likely never was. He’s a checking center and should be used as such. When the Canes go deadline-shopping, another center probably should be top of the list.

Sebastien Aho is now locked down and flourished moving to the middle last season. Our Dear Sweet Finnish Boy is still here to break our hearts. I’ve never been totally sold on Dzingel, who didn’t do much in Columbus last year after a trade there and his goal-scoring in Ottawa screams “production because someone had to score.” They look a little short on the wing as well, with only Turbo Targaryn, Nino, and Svechnikov feeling like genuine top-six wingers and none really being genuine top-line wingers for a Cup-contender. Marner would have been perfect here, just as Tavares would have been the year before.

Outlook: This is still a great team coached very well by Rod The Bod. It’s hard to see where the goaltending will completely sink them as it has in years past, and there’s no reason to think their possession numbers are going to go anywhere given the defense they sport. The only thing that’s going to nab them is a lack of frontline scoring, and Svechnikov has a chance to remedy that (but not by himself). With the Penguins and Capitals having to be in decline, the Islanders being run by Nosferatu, and the Rangers, Flyers, and Devils still in a rebuild, and the Jackets a complete mess, there’s little reason the Canes can’t take the Metro crown away from the Caps for the first time in eleventy-billion years or whatever it is. They were only five points short of that last year, and that gap is going to shrink if not disappear. There should be no boundaries for this team.

 

Everything Else

Once again, fun loses out to evil.

There’s something about poetic about the way the Carolina Hurricanes bowed out this spring. For years, their supporters and analysts have said that if they only had a top line and a goalie, they would be a Cup contender. All their metrics pointed to a really good team of a hive mind, but they couldn’t rise above. And they were also the cudgel that the anti-analytics crowd could use to prove their covered-in-dust tenets. “Well if these mean so much,” they would belch,”why does a team like Carolina never make the playoffs?”

And for a brief moment in the sunshine there, it looked like the Hurricanes might prove them all wrong. Oh, they got there because they got goaltending for once, and Sebastien Aho played like a top-line player. While it took seven games, they were clearly better than the Capitals. They ridded the world of Trotz Plauge, and we can all be thankful for that. Could a system and style win out over what we know to be true? For all the bloated cries that hockey is the ultimate team sport, would the Canes finally be the collective to overcome the brightest lights?

And then they were thwacked by a genuine top line and a goalie. There are some truths that you can’t ever get around, and any attempt will leave you seeing stars from the back of their pimp hand.

It probably didn’t help that Mr. Game 7, Mr. Leader, Mr. Playoffs, Mr. Man Justin Williams, who invented the Storm Surge and seemed to embrace actual fun and created perhaps the most unique team atmosphere in the league, only needed to be in the same zip code as Brad Marchand to become skinny David Backes. We don’t understand Torey Krug either, but we also don’t understand an urge to crack him open on the ice to see if he’s made of bugs. Not quite the tone of a leader. Tell you what Canes, why don’t you take on Brent Seabrook to talk Williams down next time? On us.

Still, you have to admire the balls on the Canes to attempt to get out of the East with Jordan Staal as a second-line center. It’s a bar bet, and they came closer to pulling it off than you would have guessed. You can’t crash harder out of that though than him wandering into Jaccod Slavin and dislodging the puck from him like an abandoned drunk at 3AM on Clark St for the Bruins killer second goal. That was just about his biggest contribution to the series. Staal has made many millions convincing people he was more than just a checking center. He’s a magic trick. He is Kaiser Soze.

The Canes were the thumb in the eye to hockey jackasses like Don Cherry, but then fell at the worst possible hurdle, which is Cherry’s favorite Bruins who go about things “the right way.” (which means Cherry likes to lick people, so there’s an image to keep you from sleeping for a month). Now we’re doomed for another year of gloating from grunt-farters (or fart-grunters). Thanks a lot, assholes. You couldn’t have lost to a worse place, where you dismissed for having a southern accent or by beat writers somehow shocked that the local establishments, 0n Tobaccos Road mind you, would have basketball on the TVs on a non-game night. You had a chance to finally put these provincial fuckwards in their place and you whiffed. Now you’ve just added to the pile they draw from. And we’ll all pay.

The problem with being what stands for all that is righteous, fun, and good in hockey is that not only are you doomed to fail (except for Ovechkin once), but your shelf-life is akin to a butterfly’s. Next year, as the Canes struggle to come up with more celebrations for wins among the group 7th-grade education hockey players have, they’ll be increasingly met with eye-rolls instead of chuckles. They’re “Bunch Of Jerks” shirts will go from ironic to a statement of fact to an increasing amount of people. Nothing lasts in the NHL, especially fun, because that means you either have a brain or don’t eat bricks in the summer getting ready for another season.

It’s all there for the Canes, of course. They’re a fun, young team that just made a run and should be an attractive destination for anyone. You may think Raleigh, N.C. isn’t a place players want to go, but lucky for the Canes it’s less of a shit-kicker town than where most of these dumbasses grow up. If you don’t think it compares favorably with Swift Current or Kitchener, then you must be a Canadian hockey writer. A goalie, a top-line player or two and the world would be theirs. They could be what the Predators have told us they are for years but actually aren’t.

Sadly, the Canes have as big of a shithead owner as you can, who folded up an entire football league and then when anyone asked pulled the, “What league?” defense. There’s also Don Waddell, whose previous GM stint went so well the team up and moved away from the city in order to lose him. Between Thomas Dundon (how amazing is it that his name is the exact same sound as the organ beat when evil descends?) and Waddell bashing their heads into a wall I think we all see a Brian Boyle signing coming.

So fare thee well to our dearest, sweetest boy and his companion. As always, you were too good for this world. At least your current team won’t trade you for not spending the offseason in Carolina.

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in Boston – Tonight, 7pm

Game 2 in Boston – Sunday, 2pm

Game 3 in Raleigh – Tuesday, 7pm

Game 4 in Raleigh – Thursday, 7pm

If you were privy to the private conversations we have here at the lab…well, you’d never read this blog again but I digress. What I meant to get to was over the past two or three seasons, there’s been a general feeling of mystification about the Boston Bruins. They look like one line and David Krejci, and a pretty good goalie and nothing else. And yet their metric numbers are always among the best, they always seem to rack up 100 points, so a first conference final appearance since that wonderful spring of 2013 seems like it’s overdue in some ways. They’ll be favored by everyone simply due to pedigree, but this is stiffest test they’ve seen yet.

Goalies: This would be easier if we could pin down who exactly is playing for Carolina. Petr Mrazek has returned to practice, so it stands to reason he’ll take his normal post…between the posts (that could be better). Curtis McElhinney did close out the Islanders from the third period of Game 2 on, but that was the Isles and their Trotz-inspired offense-allergy. The Bs come with far more firepower, and McElhinney also suffers from a serious case of being Curtis McElhinney. Mrazek has been killing it since February, and if he’s healthy there’s no reason to think he won’t at least be representative.

Sadly for Carolina, representative is probably not going to cut it, as Tuuke Nuke’Em has been excellent all playoffs long. He’s got a .938 over 13 games, and let just 11 goals in against the Jackets over six games. This is probably the best he’s played since that ’13 run to 17 seconds (he was .940 that spring), and in this kind of form he can win a series by himself. And it’s not like the Canes are loaded with deadly snipers here. This is Boston’s biggest edge no matter who dons the gear for the Canes.

Defense: And here’s Carolina’s biggest edge. The Isles trap was dealt with much more effectively by the Canes than the Penguins because they have a puck-mover on the ice all the time. In addition, Jaccob Slavin is setting himself up for Norris candidacies in the future and if the Canes make it to the Final he’d have a serious case for the Conn Smythe. While Dougie Hamilton took a fair share of grief for his dealings with Ovechkin, he’s been tearing opponents apart where it mattes, i.e. getting the puck up the ice. Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk aren’t far behind, and though they’ll mostly only play five with Calvin de Haan joining in as TVR is on the shelf for good, they’ve had basically a full week off and they’ll get an extra day between Games 1 and 2. If the series goes long that five-man rotation could bite them, but we’ll run that kitten over when we get to it.

This is where I just don’t get the Bruins. Zdeno Chara looked AWFUL against the Jackets, and there were some rushes outside of him that made me think of Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.) at the end of his career trying to go first-to-third on a single and really scared every bone in his body would just come spilling out through his heels. The entire corps is below water when it comes to possession and expected goals, and given that McAvoy looks like a busted pool toy in his own zone (when he’s not suspended) and they’re facing a dominant possession team here, it could be a real issue. I expect the Boston defense to try and be really physical with the small Carolina forwards, but they’re going to have to catch them first. And that didn’t really work out for the Capitals either.

Forwards: Normally, you’d say this is a star power vs. depth kind of thing. The Canes don’t have any front-line scorers, but they have a raft of really good forwards who keep the puck. The Teravainen-Staal-Neiderreiter (tear) line has been utterly destroying all in its path, and then you still have Sebastien Aho’s line to deal with. The Canes have gotten contributions from down the lineup as well, and they’ll probably need to keep doing that to get out of this. The Canes are kind of like the Itchy and Scratchy version of Fantasia, when Scratchy chopped up Itchy into vapor but then the vapor just became thousands of tiny Itchys and destroyed him from the inside.

The Bruins will stake a claim to being more than one line, and they’ve gotten help from Charlie Coyle, Marcus Johansson, and Jake DeBrusk at times. But when they win, it’s because Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak-Krejci score. When they don’t, they likely lose. The Canes don’t have anything that can match those four, but they don’t depend on anyone like that either. While Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are good, they aren’t what Slavin is right now along with Hamilton. Sure, Marchand is going to try and annoy the piss out of Dougie, but I don’t know that there’s getting to Dougie, especially if he’s pushing the play. This is probably where your series is decided. If Slavin and Hamilton, or Pesce and Faulk in Boston, can keep Boston’s top line at least somewhat controlled, then Carolina’s raft of foot soldiers probably take this. If the Bs glitterati go off, the Canes probably can’t match.

Prediction: Probably more with my heart than my head here, but the way Slavin is playing makes me think the Canes can be the first team this spring to keep Boston’s top line under wraps. Rask is a big challenge, but then so was Lehner before the Canes got to him. Same goes for Holtby. Something about this Canes team. Also, fuck Boston. Canes in 6. 

Everything Else

This spring will prove to most who need it to be true that anything can happen in the NHL playoffs. All you have to do is get in. The Hawks are already pumping this narrative, preparing the ground for a less than stellar summer and the distinct possibility of a 90-95 point team next year. The Kings of ’12 are always held up as this, and unless the Sharks or Bruins carry it all the way to the end, most likely this year’s Cup winner will be touted to prove the unpredictability of the NHL’s spring ninja course.

But this isn’t really the case. If you were around in 2012, you’ll remember that the Kings were preseason favorites, and spent a good portion of that season fucking around and thumbing their own ass. They fired a coach, got their ass in gear in March or so, and romped through the playoffs, which a lot of people saw coming. Some favorable matchups didn’t hurt their cause either (hi there, St. Louis, Arizona, and New Jersey).

Carolina looks poised to be this team. They’re a game away from the East Final, and having already kneecapped the Capitals, they won’t have much fear of either the Bruins or Jackets, especially if those two are hurling themselves at each other violently for seven games. And it’s true that the Canes don’t really have any stars. Sebastien Aho is bordering on one, our love for Teuvo will be the main reason cited when we are hauled off to somewhere inaccessible forever by top men one day, and Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk are really good too. But there’s not really anyone here that NBC is grabbing to do those weird promos in the lights on ice in September, basically.

But yet, if you were paying attention, it was clear that the Canes are one of the best even-strength teams around. And they have been for a few years now. Whatever category you want–attempts, shots, chances, or expected-goals–the Canes rank no lower than #3. As always, it was finishing and goaltending that kept the Canes down, as has always been the case, and when evaluating who is the best team in the league you can’t ignore those factors.

But then the Canes got goaltending, they finished a little better, and since the middle of the season they’ve collected just about as many points as anyone, including the Lightning. As someone who wants to see the best teams in the later rounds and then win it, the Canes count. If they’re talent matched their process, they’d probably have a points total in the same zip code as the Lightning did. That talent would also boost a power play that was barely meh.

While the Penguins didn’t have the energy or desire to really work through a Trotz team, the Canes are perfectly built to do it, even if they rode their luck a bit in Game 2. They have a mobile defense and pretty much every point, and can get up the ice and through the Isles’ trap. Trotz teams only work when they have an abundance of finish to not be undone by the small margins he plays on, like last year’s Caps. It’s fine if you don’t control possession or attempts and keep things tight when you have Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, and others to maximize what chances you do get. When Josh Bailey is your #1 sniper, you are up against it.

Because they didn’t get Fleury ’18 goaltending, and they don’t play in Vegas where everyone wants a free trip to, the Canes don’t come with the ballyhoo of last year’s Knights. Except it’s kind of the same deal, just more sustainable. There’s no William Karlsson banking a quarter of the shots he takes or James Neal putting in one last year before dying. This is who the Canes are, and if they were to add another forward or two, or a goalie, in the summer (assuming Aho’s raise doesn’t completely wash away cap space) with the $30M in space they have or so, the Canes are going to be here for a while.

Of course, this being the NHL people will try and glean what the message is and copy. Not too many other teams are going to be able to assemble the talent on the blue line the Canes have, but an increasingly fast defensive corps would seem to be paramount in a league that keeps getting faster and faster. But the thing is, anything can work for a season. We’ll need a few years more on the Canes before we know if this is a real thing. My hunch is that it is.

 

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in Brooklyn – Tonight, 6pm

Game 2 in Brooklyn – Sunday, 2pm

Game 3 in Raleigh – Wednesday, 6pm

Game 4 in Raleigh – Friday, 6pm

Well this wasn’t the matchup you saw coming. For the first time since 2015, the Metro Division Final won’t be contested by the Penguins and Capitals. And since the NHL went to this format in 2014, this is the first time that neither the Caps or Penguins will appear. Which is really quite something when you think about it. For comparison’s sake, EVERY team in the Central has appeared in the second round since this format came into being (technically the Avs are in the Pacific and never the Central but let’s just go with it). So the national audience may not be familiar with these teams, but there’s a lot to get through here.

Goalies: This is a clear advantage for the Islanders, and when you have a big advantage in net in the playoffs, sometimes that’s enough. Mrazek was barely ok against the Caps, with a .899 SV%. And that’s with giving up only three goals in the three home games the Canes had. The Isles don’t come with near the firepower the Capitals do, which will help Mrazek, but you would be shocked if he wins this for Carolina. He’s most likely going to be just fine, and the margins in this one are going to be so tight that fine may or may not be enough. The Isles can’t get him moving like the Caps did, they don’t have the skill or the interest. So maybe that helps just enough?

Meanwhile, Robin Lehner was throwing a .956 at the Penguins, and really not having to work all that hard to do it. He only saw an absurd number of shots in Game 1, and that was an overtime game, and Trotz teams keep him protected. But he might not even need the protection, such is the form he’s in. The last three game saw him give up three goals on 92 shots. That’s a .968. So even if the Canes might actually be better equipped to get through the Trotz minefield, getting past Lehner is going to take more than a smile.

Defense: While the Capitals might make fun of Dougie Hamilton, and he wasn’t particularly good against the Caps, the rest of the defense of the Canes was dominant. Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin carried a 58+% possession rate and just about the same in expected goals, and probably were the main reason the Canes are where they are. If you can believe it, de Haan and TVR on the third pairing were also very good. The depth here has always been the Canes strength. Also, if Dougie isn’t broken, they have three trap-busters in Hamilton, Faulk, and Pesce, though Pesce and Hamilton tend to play together. Rod Brind’Amour would be wise to get them all on separate pairings so they can always navigate the booby traps Trotz and the Isles set up, but with two pairings that should be 40-45 a night. It’s when TVR thinks he’s Paul Coffey that they’ll run into problems. If you were to design a defense to deal with a Trotz team, this is it.

You would be hard-pressed to pick the Isles defense out of a police lineup, but they’re well sheltered by they system and forwards. If the Canes can somehow open this up more than the Pens did, they Isles are in trouble. Nick Leddy has been iffy all season, and the Isles don’t have a proven puck-mover beyond that. But Trotz teams don’t get opened up on. They’re well-drilled and they do what they do, it’s just not terribly exciting.

Forwards: Of all the four second-round series, this one has by far the least amount of star power up front with either team. Sebastien Aho is wonderful, and so are Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey, but they don’t move the needle much. And all of them might be the best second-line players in the league. The Islanders aren’t asked to do much other than work hard and be on the right side of the puck and find the goals when they present themselves. The Canes grunted through and got just enough goals throughout the lineup.

The Canes forwards will depend on their defense getting through the muck of the Isles in the neutral zone. If they do that, there’s probably just enough dash with Aho, Our Special Boy, Nino Neiderreiter, and Justin Williams (and if Svechnikov returns), and enough graft with Foegele, Staal, Martinook, and one or two others. But that’s a big if. You’d feel more confident of them busting through here with just a touch more life on the front end.

The Isles can match a top six, maybe even the whole corps. They just don’t do the same things. This is basically a push. If the Canes get as loose defensively as they were at times against the Caps, Bailey and Barzal and Co. aren’t as lethal but they can make them pay. And we know the Isles won’t be loose.

Prediction: This one’s hard to call. I feel like the Canes are built to deal with this, I just wonder if they can do so at the first time of asking and with this forward group. And the Isles will be no softer than the Caps were, and maybe even smarter about it instead of running around like kindergarten recess. It’s not going to be pretty. The Isles have the edge in net. Feels like this one goes the distance too, and I’ll decide to punish the Isles for playing this in Brooklyn instead of Nassau.

Canes in 7. 

Everything Else

We’re getting to the business end of the 1st round, and thankfully most of the bullshit and cock-holding has started to fade a bit. Some things will get decided this weekend, so it’s time to focus on what really matters. Here’s where we stand.

Toronto vs. Boston (2-2)

You hear less moaning and whining from Toronto now that Tampa won’t be waiting in the second round after spending a week filing their nails, as we all thought would happen. Still, you can easily see a scenario where the Leafs finally vanquish the Bruins, are overjoyed with their first series win since the Model-T was in fashion, and then get atom-smashed by the Jackets in four or five games. I’m almost kind of hoping this happens.

Anyway, this series has been as close as 2-2 would suggest and neither really finding anything to exploit on the other. The Bs really kicked around the Leafs in Game 2, and the Leafs kind of did in Game 4 without getting the result. Sometimes the other guys makes 38 saves.

For the most part, whether home or road, Patrice Bergeron has been matched up with John Tavares, and has gotten just this side the better. You wouldn’t expect that to change tonight in Boston. And much the same, the Matthews-Krejci matchup has been a standstill, though if you had to bet Matthews is the slightly better bet to pop off. But where this might get decided is the Bruins bottom-six has been getting devoured possession and chance-wise by Toronto’s, and if Nazem Kadri weren’t a galactic moron he’d be odds-on to make that count instead of his replacements. Still, that’s what I’d watch for the next two or three.

Avalanche vs. Flames (Avs 3-1)

This one doesn’t take much science. The Flames don’t have an answer for Nathan MacKinnon, even though by some miracle the goaltending has essentially been equal. It’s just that Mike Smith has faced 108 shots the past two games. Giordano and Brodie are getting blistered, and I can’t talk about what’s happening to Hamonic and Hanifin without asking any children in the room to leave.

On the other side, Sean Monahan hasn’t come close to answering what MacKinnon’s line is doing, and if that continues the Flames here are toast. Bill Peters, or Pill Beters if you prefer, at home tonight has to get Backlund out against MacK every chance he gets. Yes, Backlund had a nightmare end to Game 4, but he’s still one of the best checking centers in the league and there doesn’t seem to be much option. Still, no one on the Flames is carrying an xGF% over 45% except Tkachuk. That’s a big one, that’s a bad one.

Stars vs. Predators (tied 2-2)

If you haven’t watched this one, good for you. It’s been like watching the DMV. The Stars have turned into Trotz Ultra, and the Predators don’t really have the firepower to easily get through it. They play just enough defense to usually be ok, except when they don’t bother to show up as they did in Game 4. With Bishop and Rinne, and the way the Stars play this, the margins are awfully thin and this one could easily be decided by something hitting someone’s ass and going in. Just don’t cut time out for it, you’ve got better things to do.

Blues vs. Jets (Blues lead 3-2)

It’s rare you see a team try and out-Blues the Blues, but we live in strange times. The Jets, who I’m convinced have been trying to get Paul Maurice fired since November, had it in their hands last night. Up two goals at home and the Blues really doing nothing. But because they stopped playing defense long ago in that attempt to get their coach canned, they let them back into it. Also having an aging and even more-uncaring Byfuglien out there will lead to messes on the rug, evidenced by Oskar Sundqvist walking around him like he was roped off by caution tape for the equalizer last night. Jacob Trouba seems intent on costing himself money by the day, and the Jets are a mess.

This is still the Blues though, who also had the series in their hands and then kept tossing Colton Parayko at Mark Scheifele. This has truly been the debate of Mooseylvania, where each keeps pushing the the win back toward each other.

Hurricanes vs. Capitals (2-2)

It’s funny, but basically the Canes have kicked the crap out of the Capitals for most of this series and can’t seem to solve Holtby. only Game 4 was close in terms of possession or expected goals, and the Canes carried a 57% share in that one anyway. Again, as we’ve said with the Canes for years now, as fun as they are and as much right as they do, the lack of premier firepower is costing them. With it, and this one might already be over.

Still, it’s the former champs and you’d trust Braden Holtby more than Petr Mrazek, even though Mrazek has been good for months now. The Canes have to continue to dominate possession to make up for the snipers they don’t have, stay out of the box, and they can pull the upset. Oshie is going to be a big miss here, because his kind of finishing is the difference between these teams. Without him, that difference becomes smaller. And you know Aho is going to go off in one of these games.

Sharks vs. Knights (Vegas leads 3-2)

This one’s simple enough. When the Sharks get any saves whatsoever, they win. When they don’t, they don’t. They haven’t been outclassed or dominated for any stretch here other than maybe Game 3, but in the middle three games whatever chances the Knights got went in and the Sharks were always chasing. Jones played well last night, the Sharks won relatively easily, but that was also the case in Game 1 and then he went to the zoo for three games. There’s no margin for error now. Fleury has only been ok in this series, but he’s only had to be ok. Vlasic’s return also clearly makes a difference.

You’ll know by the 1st period on Sunday if this one’s over or not. If Jones hasn’t crapped out a chicken, the Sharks have every chance to get it back to Cali for a Game 7. If he has, pack up the cats.

Everything Else

vs.

Schedule

Game 1 in DC tonight, 6:3o

Game 2 in DC Saturday, 2pm

Game 3 in Carolina Monday, 6pm

Game 4 in Carolina Thursday, 6pm

There’s a chance that being everyone’s bandwagon team, the Carolina Hurricanes could get kind of annoying pretty soon. I’ll never find them that way, because of Our Dear Sweet Boy, but you can see where plenty will. And rarely, outside of Vegas last year, does the hot new thing that everyone likes with all the fun stuff ever go very far. And the Caps are just the the kind of tried and trusted yet boring-ass team that snuffs this kind of thing out with no mirth whatsoever. The Authority always wins Let’s see if we can find a way to an upset.

Goalies: The only longer shot to leading a revival than Jordan Binnington had to be Curtis McElhinney, who is 35 and already proven to be an NHL journeyman. Then he and Petr Mrazek put up a ridiculous February, the Canes got hot, and here we are. But McElhinney has only been so-so since, and was actually pretty bad in March as the Canes made the playoff chase harder than it needed to be. So another unlikely revival came to save the day, as Mrazek has been on fire for the whole of the spring, and he has taken the job and will start tonight. But it’s still Petr Mrazek, who was basically woeful for three years before this. The Canes certainly limit what their goalies have to do, which is good, because other than recency you’d be awfully afraid of Mrazek having to do that much.

Meanwhile, Braden Holtby basically did what he did last year, which is kind of just be ok. His numbers are pretty much on-line with what he did last season, and then of course he turned it on in the playoffs, took his job back after a game and a half, and ended covered in beer. That’s probably been his plan all along. So while he might not looked all that good in the season, his playoff record is what it is. He’ll take some beating, because history says he’s going to turn back to Vezina-level now.

Defense: You won’t find a better defense than Carolina’s, and it’s getting Calvin de Haan back. It includes the best d-man who’s never considered among the top tier but the metrics say he is in Dougie Hamilton. It’s got another premier puck-mover in Justin Faulk. It’s got two guys who dominated the dungeon shifts before Dougie’s arrival in Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.

And then there’s Maude (TVR).

It can do anything, it does everything, and is the main reason why the Canes remain one of the more dominant even-strength possession teams around. When it comes to possession and expected-goals, the Canes are the best.

The Caps will be hamstrung by Michal Kempny being injured, which is a sentence that also hurts to write. Still. He provided a platform for John Carlson to pull something of a cowboy act, and now that appears to fall to Nick Jensen, who was a Red Wing d-man so you know he sucks. Orlov and Niskanen still do the mine-sweeping here, and if they don’t get the pop they got from Carlson this spring as they did last (and all season) then they lack a little punch from the back. Or if they’re getting buried because Kempny isn’t around to spring Carlson. And there’s still a belief that Brooks Orpik will cause damage at some point. Against a team loaded with fast, nippy forwards would seem the prime time for that.

Forwards: Once again, you’ve got a classic tale of Star Power vs. The Collective. Which is what last year’s Final was supposedly. How’d that go?

It’s something of a disservice to Sebastien Aho, who is a genuine star or will be one day very soon. But he is not Nicklas Backstrom, at least not yet even though he outscored him this year. And there’s our Darling Finnish Prince, but of course he is not Alex Ovechkin. Justin Williams is a fine leader and gritty gutty guy, but the Caps answer with TJ Oshie.

The Canes do have some depth, as Nino Neiderreiter showed up, was nearly a point-per-game, and was the perfect Cane which everyone except for Minnesota predicted. McGinn, Foegle, Martinook have chipped in with big goals as the Canes locked down a playoff spot. Still, Jordan Staal is a #3 center miscast as a #2 here, and you can see where this could be a problem.

Because not only do the Caps have stars, not only do they have pedigree, but they also have depth. And where the Canes are trying to convince you Staal can score, the Caps have Kuznetsov who does. The Caps boast seven 20-goal scorers. The Canes have four. Eller and Burakovsky are always lurking down at the bottom of the lineup, along with Brett Connolly. Carl Hagelin has been a playoff hero before. and he’s down there too.

Prediction: This is something of a classic matchup, where one team’s strength goes right up against another’s. The Canes have the deepest defense in the East, possibly in the entire playoffs. The Caps have forwards for days. So it would be easy to think this is where the series is decided.

Except the Caps aren’t weak defensively. Or more to the point, they have good players on defense. But this year, they’ve given up more chances than before, and have one of the worst expected-goals against in the league. They were seriously only a little better than the Hawks in that category. But the Caps do what they always do, which is outshoot their problems, with a league-leading 10.0 SH% at evens. Do the Canes have enough scoring to make that weaker defensive play hurt against Washington while surviving the firing squad at the other end? With Petr Mrazek? You can almost make the case. Just not quite.

Caps in seven. 

Everything Else

By now you know I like to do this at certain points throughout the year. It’s no secret I think the NHL standings system is stupid, and actually a conspiracy to give most every team at least the appearance of competitiveness. Almost everyone can be over or near .500, when in reality they’re nowhere close. The loser-point is a crime. So let’s see what’s really going on. There are two ways I like to do it. One is to relegate both overtime wins and losses to mere ties, and this way we can see who is winning games in regulation. The second is to go with a 3-2-1-0 system, where any game won in overtime or shootout is two points, and one lost in that fashion is one point.

So first, the standings as they are:

Atlantic Division GP W L OL PTS
Tampa Bay Lightning 66 50 12 4 104
Boston Bruins 65 39 17 9 87
Toronto Maple Leafs 65 40 21 4 84
Montreal Canadiens 66 35 24 7 77
Buffalo Sabres 65 30 27 8 68
Florida Panthers 65 28 26 11 67
Detroit Red Wings 65 23 33 9 55
Ottawa Senators 66 23 38 5 51
Metropolitan Division GP W L OL PTS
Washington Capitals 66 38 21 7 83
New York Islanders 65 37 21 7 81
Carolina Hurricanes 65 36 23 6 78
Pittsburgh Penguins 65 34 22 9 77
Columbus Blue Jackets 65 36 26 3 75
Philadelphia Flyers 66 32 26 8 72
New York Rangers 65 27 27 11 65
New Jersey Devils 66 25 33 8 58
Central Division GP W L OL PTS
Winnipeg Jets 65 39 22 4 82
Nashville Predators 68 38 25 5 81
St. Louis Blues 65 34 25 6 74
Dallas Stars 65 33 27 5 71
Minnesota Wild 66 32 27 7 71
Colorado Avalanche 66 28 26 12 68
Chicago Blackhawks 66 27 30 9 63
Pacific Division GP W L OL PTS
Calgary Flames 65 41 17 7 89
San Jose Sharks 66 39 19 8 86
Vegas Golden Knights 67 36 26 5 77
Arizona Coyotes 65 32 28 5 69
Edmonton Oilers 65 28 30 7 63
Vancouver Canucks 66 27 30 9 63
Anaheim Ducks 66 25 32 9 59
Los Angeles Kings 65 24 33 8 56

Now, the one with only ties and no OT results:

Atlantic Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Tampa Bay Lightning 66 50 44 12 6 4 98
Boston Bruins 65 39 32 17 7 9 80
Toronto Maple Leafs 65 40 34 21 6 4 78
Montreal Canadiens 66 35 31 24 4 7 73
Buffalo Sabres 65 30 23 27 7 8 61
Florida Panthers 65 28 21 26 7 11 60
Detroit Red Wings 65 23 16 33 7 9 48
Ottawa Senators 66 23 18 38 5 5 46
Metropolitan Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Washington Capitals 66 38 33 21 5 7 78
New York Islanders 65 37 32 21 5 7 76
Carolina Hurricanes 65 36 32 23 4 6 74
Pittsburgh Penguins 65 34 30 22 4 9 73
Columbus Blue Jackets 65 36 28 26 8 3 67
Philadelphia Flyers 66 32 27 26 5 8 67
New York Rangers 65 27 26 27 1 11 64
New Jersey Devils 66 25 22 33 3 8 55
Central Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Winnipeg Jets 65 39 33 22 6 4 76
Nashville Predators 68 38 33 25 5 5 76
St. Louis Blues 65 34 29 25 5 6 69
Minnesota Wild 66 32 29 27 3 7 68
Colorado Avalanche 66 28 27 26 1 12 67
Dallas Stars 65 33 27 27 6 5 65
Chicago Blackhawks 66 27 19 30 8 9 55
Pacific Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Calgary Flames 65 41 36 17 5 7 84
San Jose Sharks 66 39 33 19 6 8 80
Vegas Golden Knights 67 36 32 26 4 5 73
Arizona Coyotes 65 32 27 28 5 5 64
Vancouver Canucks 66 27 22 30 5 9 58
Edmonton Oilers 65 28 22 30 6 7 57
Anaheim Ducks 66 25 21 32 4 9 55
Los Angeles Kings 65 24 19 33 5 8 51

As you can see, not that much changes, but there are some. One, the Jackets would be completely adrift in the Metro, and really the playoffs altogether. The Hurricanes would be in with a real shout of winning the Metro as well. The Lightning wouldn’t have a prayer of catching the ’77 Canadiens. Dallas would fall behind the Wild and Avalanche, and the Hawks would be hopelessly marooned to the bottom of the Central, with their 19 regulation wins being third-worst in the league. Arizona would barely be hanging on in the playoff race.

Now with the 3-2-1-0 system:

Atlantic Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Tampa Bay Lightning 66 50 44 12 6 4 148
Boston Bruins 65 39 32 17 7 9 119
Toronto Maple Leafs 65 40 34 21 6 4 118
Montreal Canadiens 66 35 31 24 4 7 108
Buffalo Sabres 65 30 23 27 7 8 91
Florida Panthers 65 28 21 26 7 11 88
Detroit Red Wings 65 23 16 33 7 9 71
Ottawa Senators 66 23 18 38 5 5 69
Metropolitan Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Washington Capitals 66 38 33 21 5 7 116
New York Islanders 65 37 32 21 5 7 113
Carolina Hurricanes 65 36 32 23 4 6 110
Pittsburgh Penguins 65 34 30 22 4 9 107
Columbus Blue Jackets 65 36 28 26 8 3 103
Philadelphia Flyers 66 32 27 26 5 8 99
New York Rangers 65 27 26 27 1 11 91
New Jersey Devils 66 25 22 33 3 8 80
Central Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Winnipeg Jets 65 39 33 22 6 4 115
Nashville Predators 68 38 33 25 5 5 114
St. Louis Blues 65 34 29 25 5 6 103
Minnesota Wild 66 32 29 27 3 7 100
Colorado Avalanche 66 28 27 26 1 12 95
Dallas Stars 65 33 27 27 6 5 98
Chicago Blackhawks 66 27 19 30 8 9 82
Pacific Division GP W REG W L OTW OL PTS
Calgary Flames 65 41 36 17 5 7 125
San Jose Sharks 66 39 33 19 6 8 119
Vegas Golden Knights 67 36 32 26 4 5 109
Arizona Coyotes 65 32 27 28 5 5 96
Vancouver Canucks 66 27 22 30 5 9 85
Edmonton Oilers 65 28 22 30 6 7 85
Anaheim Ducks 66 25 21 32 4 9 80
Los Angeles Kings 65 24 19 33 5 8 75

Differences here: No one is within 23 points of the Lightning. The Wings and Senators have a firm grasp on the top two spots in the lottery. Again, Carolina has a real shot at a division crown. The Coyotes have a real shout at a playoff spot.

The changes aren’t that big, but there are some that teams and fanbases would notice.

Everything Else

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

Corsica

Well, changing coaches hasn’t worked yet. Jumbling around the lines didn’t really either. Though Jeremy Colliton has his first point, a return of one out of six probably isn’t what management had in mind. Or maybe it was and they didn’t tell us?

Whatever it was, tonight was nothing we didn’t know. The roster is short, and there a couple veterans not carrying their weight. This team was probably calibrated on the hope that they would. I don’t know why you’d calibrate it that way, but here we are. At least I don’t have another explanation. If you do, feel free to share.

All right, let’s clean this up and get on with our lives.

The Two Obs

-Not sure where to begin, so I’ll unfairly begin with Duncan Keith again. While his glaring gaffe (alliteration, people) took place on the penalty kill, so I should probably just dismiss it as him getting the inevitable goal against out of the way early so the Hawks could get back to even-strength.

At some point this season, if Jeremy Colliton accomplishes nothing else this season but convince Duncan Keith that he’s no longer DUNCAN KEITH, I’ll call it a success. We went over this on Saturday. Duncan Keith was paired with Henri Jokharju to take that aspect of his game off his plate. It was meant to streamline his game, and keep him more efficient with what he can do. He didn’t listen. Maybe he can’t fight it, maybe it’s been too long.

Pairing him with Seabrook was only going to enforce that feeling, I guess. So there he was, chasing Andrei Svechnikov outside the circles, pretty well contained out there. But Keith can’t get there anymore. And Svechnikov, a budding monster, is going to walk him every time. He did it later in the game as well, So did Aho. But this is the one the Hawks paid for. Svechnikov has a clear path to the net, forcing Seabrook into basically Sophie’s choice. He could maybe do a little more than just amble over there while leaving a passing lane to Michael Ferland, but here were no good options.

Someone get Keith in front of a video screen with nothing but how Ryan Suter plays these days. It’s a super-efficient game, where Suter lets the game come to him and picks his spots when to get outside the normal parameters. Keith is still chasing the game and trying to bend it to his will, He can’t do it anymore. And the Hawks keep paying for it.

-That goal was off a Henri Jokiharju penalty where he braced for a hit at the expense of getting the puck. These are the kinds of mistakes we would normally live with, but now is about the time they have to stop. Hey, The HarJu isn’t going to survive too many hits in the NHL with the puck. But his hands are quick enough to move the puck along before getting hit. Chalk it up to the learning curve.

-Which will bring us to Nick Schmaltz. We generally like Schmaltz around here. Fine player. Clear problems. The refusing to shoot is getting really annoying. And Eddie correctly lit him up for ducking out of a puck battle/hit with Justin Faulk (though Schmaltz did cause a turnover a second later, but still).

And that kind of thing keeps happening. And it’s a tough sell to your fanbase and everyone else when you’re saying you basically did nothing in the offseason to keep your powder dry in big part to re-sign Schmaltz. Because he keeps looking like a second-line player, whether that’s wing or center. You don’t build around second-line players. I don’t want to know what kind of deals Stan turned down that included Schmaltz.

Schmaltz still has 60 games to turn it around and look like a real piece. But it’s year three now, you kind of know where he is. Are you tossing $6 million at this? Or are you hoping he keeps doing shit like this and we’ll have to agree to a bridge deal? And shoot the fucking thing already.

-Brandon Davidson and Jan Rutta got themselves in a tangle when the Canes were on a change and there was literally no forechecker in the zone and they couldn’t manage to pass between each other in the 2nd period. I can’t really sum the third pairing up any better than that.

-Other than the penalty, Goose and The HarJu weren’t a complete disaster, to the tune of a 68% and 64% share on the night.

-It’s nice that the Hawks fourth-line was so effective. But to review, when your fourth line is your most effective, that’s a problem.

Ok, that’s enough. It’s a point. Maybe it’ll be better to snap it against the Blues. Somehow, I doubt it.

Onwards…