Category Archives: NHL

The “Discover Thanksgiving Showdown” – the NHL’s Dumbest Gimmick

(Note: I am writing this article before this year’s “Discover Thanksgiving Showdown”, but it is being published after the game.)

Today is a special day on the NHL calendar, as we have the annual occurrence of the league’s dumbest gimmick, the “Discover Thanksgiving Showdown”.  For a league with shootouts, 3-on-3 overtime, and somewhere between 10 and 82 outdoor games per year (sorry, I have lost count); it is quite an accomplishment to earn the honor of “NHL’s Dumbest Gimmick”.

Some of you might be wondering, “Wait, I have never even heard of this “Discover” thing.  Fair enough.  Allow me to explain.  “Discover” is a credit-card company that airs the most annoying commercials (“We treat you, like you’d treat you.”) I have ever seen.  Somehow, I have lived 37 years, yet I do not recall ever seeing a “Discover” card used in my actual life.

Oh wait, you mean you have never heard of the “Discover Thanksgiving Showdown”.  Well, the previous paragraph will nevertheless go over big with all of the American Express employees I know.  Anyway, let us discuss the “showdown”.

This game is simply a game on Black Friday afternoon.  The game airs on NBC and almost always features the Rangers.  In the rare case that the Rangers are not involved, the Penguins and Sidney Crosby are.  I cannot find evidence of a 2012 edition of the “Showdown”, but I have evidence of 2011 and 2013-2018 editions of this gimmick.  Thus, in five of the seven editions, the Rangers have appeared.  As mentioned earlier, the Penguins have had several appearances in this game as well.  Meanwhile, the only other teams to have been blessed with the gift of playing in the “Discover Thanksgiving Showdown” have been the Red Wings (back when they were good), Flyers, and Bruins.

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Photo via The Associated Press

You might now be wondering, “Is this game special because it is the only game played on Black Friday?”  Nope!  There are 15 games being played today, and 14 of them will sadly go unsponsored by the United States’ fourth-most popular credit card.  (Yes, I do realize the NHL is, at best, the United States’ fourth-most popular professional sports league.)

“Surely there must be something extra-special about the ‘Showdown’ game, compared to today’s other twelve games,” you must be thinking.  Nope.  There is nothing special at all.  The Rangers and Flyers today are both playing only 1 of their 82 respective games.  It carries no more weight than the Islanders/Devils game that will take place later in the day.

The NHL has historically done an excellent job of minimizing national-TV exposure for 75-80% of the league.  While the NFL logically realized long ago that it was wise to flex the best teams into primetime matchups, the NHL has made sure that the top matchups always feature a combination of the five afore-mentioned teams, Kings, Blackhawks, and Capitals.  Thus, if – Heaven forbid – one of the other 23 NHL teams appears in the Stanley Cup Finals, it can be bad for ratings.  Thus, had we ended up last year with a Winnipeg/Tampa Bay Finals (which was possible as of the Conference Finals), the league surely would experienced a ratings disappointment….and that disappointment would have been self-inflicted, given that the league does not care to promote strong teams that fall outside the list of eight “chosen” franchises.

Here is the bright side though.  I am a Devils fan, so I experienced seven consecutive seasons (1997-8 through 2003-4) in which the Devils were a top team, in which the Rangers missed the playoffs, but in which the Devils appeared on regular-season national TV only when playing the Rangers.  Thus, I know that the Devils will never play in the “Discover Thanksgiving Showdown” nor Winter Classic.  I know that their NBC appearances are generally rare typically require the Rangers as an opponent.  The bright side though is that I get Erika Wacther over Pierre McGuire during every Devils game, and that is a big-time victory for every Devils fan.

Thus, while the “Discover Thanksgiving Showdown” is silly, and I am perfectly OK with the Devils never being invited to it.

Celebrating My Favorite Professional Athlete of All Time, Martin Brodeur

On Monday; Martin Brodeur, my favorite athlete of all time, will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Although I tend to spend less time thinking about the Football Hall of Fame and Hockey Hall of Fame than I do about the Baseball Hall of Fame, this is the most excited I have been about someone’s induction into any of the three.  If you watch any of the induction coverage, you will hear about Brodeur’s many, many records and his incredible statistics.  You will hear some people say that he is the greatest goalie of all time.  I happen to echo that sentiment, as he was dominant from 1993 to 2007 and very good from 2007 to 2010 (those endpoints and adjectives are, of course, subjective).  Patrick Roy was great, but he did not have a run of dominance nor consistency that lasted as long as Brodeur’s.  That said, my excitement for Brodeur’s induction stems mainly from the great moments of my life that he created.

To a non-sports fan, it is silly to hear that some of a person’s greatest moments in life involved watching athletes the person has never met.  I do not care.  Watching sports has given me many wonderful moments, and I want to touch on those involving Brodeur. 

*In 1993-4, the Devils had their best regular season to that point, and they won their first two playoff series of my fandom before falling to the Rangers in the best series I have ever watched.  The loss to the Rangers and “Matteau!  Matteau!” was devastating, but the joy in watching the Devils reel off 11 playoff wins before that loss was wonderful.  Though Martin Brodeur split time that regular season with Chris Terreri, Brodeur won the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year and started all but three of the playoff games.  That playoff run was my “coming of age” as a hockey fan, and Brodeur was a big part of the run.

*On June 24, 1995; I sat with my family in then-Brendan Byrne Arena as the Devils hoisted the Stanley Cup, representing the first championship for a true New Jersey team.  I was also present at the Meadowlands for a thrilling 1-0 overtime win over Boston in Round 1 (Randy McKay with the GWG), the Conference-clinching win against the rival Flyers, and the Devils’ Game 3 win over the Red Wings in the Finals.  Of course, the Devils ultimately swept the Red Wings in four.  Although I had been a casual Devils fan from Kindergarten (1987-8) through fifth grade (1992-3), it always seemed to me that the Cup was reserved for teams from Canada and the Penguins.  When the hated Rangers beat the Devils in 1994 en route to the Cup, I was upset but had hope that the Devils could someday win the Cup.  That “someday” came the very next season, and Martin Brodeur dominated for four rounds.  Thank you, Marty, for those nine glorious weeks of hockey.

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Image via SI.com

*On August 8, 1996; Martin Brodeur came to the grand opening of Garden State Plaza’s Lord & Taylor (only a few years after I had learned that the store chain was not actually owned by Lawrence Taylor).  My mom brought my brother, two friends, and me to the opening and to get Brodeur’s autographs.  My brother ended up with a picture in the newspaper with Brodeur.  We were all a bit jealous of him, but it was a great moment nonetheless!

*On April 17, 1997; I was sitting at then-Continental Airlines Arena (nee Brendan Byrne Arena), as the Devils nursed a 4-2 lead in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs against the Canadiens.  My friend Scott said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Brodeur scored a goal here?”  Sure enough, he did.  We jumped up and down a whole lot; it was pure elation.  I have watched this highlight a million times, and I get chills every time.

*On June 10, 2000; less than two weeks before my high-school graduation, I sat in my living room with my family and some good friends.  We watched Devils/Stars Game 6 extend into double overtime, when Jason Arnott’s goal clinched the Devils their second Cup.  Pure elation yet again.  As was the case in 1995, Brodeur backstopped the Devils the whole way through the playoffs.  The playoffs were a very busy time for me, as I had many exciting moments involving my pending HS graduation; but the Cup run was every bit as exciting as the high-school stuff.

*On June 9, 2003; my family was in Continental Airlines Arena again, as Martin Brodeur pitched a 3-0 shutout in Game 7 vs. the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.  This was Brodeur’s third shutout of the Finals and seventh of the playoffs and gave the Devils their third Stanley Cup.  At this point, I had finished my junior year of college, and Brodeur was one of only five Devils remaining continuously from the team’s first Stanley Cup.  It was the 10th year in a row in which Brodeur dominated and the 10th year in a row in which the Devils looked like a Cup contender for many parts of the season.  I enjoyed the first half of the playoff run at Colgate, as I wrapped up my junior year.  Then, I enjoyed the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals back at home in Midland Park (NJ) with many of my high-school friends.

*On April 29, 2006; Brodeur earned the victory as the Devils finished off a four-game sweep of the Rangers in Round 1 of the playoffs.  While the Devils had already tripled the Rangers’ number of Cups in my lifetime, it was nevertheless a huge thrill to beat the Rangers in a playoff series for the first time.  While athletes sometimes have less passion than fans do, we Devils fans always loved that Brodeur hated the Rangers as much as we did.  That series win was big for all of us.  This win happened nearly two years into my working career (at the parent company of AvisBudget) but provided me with great revenge for the Rangers’ series win from when I was in sixth grade (1994).

*On March 17, 2009; Brodeur earned his 552nd win, to break Patrick Roy’s record.  While there was initially an asterisk here, due to Brodeur’s having opportunities at shootout wins; Brodeur would ultimately surpass Roy’s total by a greater amount than Brodeur’s number of shootout wins.  Thus, the euphoria I felt standing in the last row of The Rock (Prudential Center) was not phony.  I stood there with my brother and three friends as Brodeur cut the netting off the net to keep as a souvenir.  This was the first big moment at The Rock, and The Rock probably never would have even been built if it were not for all of Brodeur’s success at Continental Airlines Arena.  (The Rock opened in 2007.)  At this point, I was two years into my teaching career at Ramsey High School, and it was awesome to reflect on the 552 wins.  I thought of how many “great goalies” had come and gone from the NHL over Brodeur’s 15-17-year career (depending upon whether or not you acknowledge the few games he played at the end of 1991-2), yet Brodeur was the one constant great goalie over that whole time. 

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Image via Toronto Star

*On May 25, 2012; nearly two decades after Brodeur’s rookie season (and more than twenty years after his NHL debut), the legend managed to be involved in what I consider the greatest non-Cup moment in Devils history.  It was Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals – Devils vs. Rangers.  The Devils were up 3 games to 2, as the Devils had won earned their first two series wins in the era of The Rock.  I was in the 100-level of The Rock that night with my former roommate.  Less than two minutes into the overtime, “Henrique, it’s over!!!” happened.  Pure elation on the level of the Jason Arnott Cup-winning goal from 12 years prior.  In fact, this felt every bit like the Devils winning the Cup.  More than 18,000 fans, myself included, had out-of-body experiences of joy as the greatest goal song of all time (“The ‘Hey’ Song”) blared over the Prudential Center speakers. To knock off the Rangers in overtime in the Conference Finals was incredible.  Brodeur again rejoiced to a level befitting of knocking off the hated rivals in the Conference Finals.  He looked as happy as he would have if the Devils had beaten the Rangers in Game 7 in 1994, and the same could be said for me.  While the Devils would ultimately lose to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, the 2012 playoff run remains a wonderfully positive experience for Devils fans. 

*After 2012, Brodeur would play two additional seasons for the Devils.  In the latter, he split time with current Devils goalie Cory Schneider.  By the end of the 2013-4 season, Brodeur had comfortably set the records for wins, shutouts, games played, and many more.  For me though, it was most amazing to think of the amount of time I had this guy in my life.  He debuted with a few games when I was in 4th grade (1992).  He was a rookie when I was in 6th grade, and he was the Devils’ primary goalie from that year through middle school, high school, college, three years working at AvisBudget, and seven years teaching at Ramsey High School.  Fittingly, his last Devils season was my first school year teaching the legendary editors, Robert Sartori and Nick Costanzo, of this blog.  Thus, over 22 of my first 32 years of life, Brodeur left a mark. 

I should add that his on-ice success is not the limit of the mark he left.  He has also been the best interview of any player for whom I have ever rooted.  He has always been very personable, yet he has always managed to say things of substance.  So many NHL players speak solely in clichés, but this has not been true of Brodeur.  Additionally, as a Devils fan, it was a delight that an all-time great chose time and again to stay in New Jersey.  If the greatest goalie of all time had played in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, or any Canadian city, he would have been a mega-celebrity; but Brodeur was content to stay in New Jersey.  In New Jersey, he was celebrated, but he was never revered on the level of Derek Jeter or the other big stars of the NYC area. 

The only negative on his playing career is that somehow, the wonderful “Mar-TAN” chant from Continental Airlines Arena evolved into a “Mar-TEE” chant at The Rock.  You would think that, as he aged, the chant would move to the more dignified name, not to the less dignified name.  Plus, “Mar-TAN” accents the correct syllable, while “Mar-TEE” does not.  This turn of events has never made sense to me, but I do not blame Brodeur for that.  I am hear to applaud the man, the myth, the legend, that is Martin Brodeur.

Congratulations, Martin Brodeur, on your induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and thank you for being involved with so many great moments of my life!

For Once, Let’s Applaud Gary Bettman

One of the great pastimes for the modern sports fan is criticizing NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.  This activity is actually one of the few things that both hockey lovers and hockey haters can enjoy.  I too have heaped plenty of criticism on the man, especially during the 2004-5 lockout.  In fact, that was when Bettman’s commissionership was at its lowest.  In the summer of 2005, he found himself presiding over a league that had lost an entire season, that had switched its broadcasting rights from ESPN to the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), that was in the midst of a brutal 5-year stretch of Finals matchups, and that had decided to become the first major American sports league to end games with a marketing gimmick (That, of course, was the shootout.  Loyal BTB readers know how much I loathe those.).

Yes, 2005 was a rough time for Bettman and the NHL.  In fact, by the spring of 2005, I had been discussing the NHL in past tense.  I figured that, if a league was in such horrible financial shape that both the owners and players could essentially get behind the idea of missing the entire season, the league was not primed to survive financially in the long run.  During the lockout, I would watch classic Devils games and figure that this was the only way I would ever be able to watch the Devils again.  This is why, when the NHL resumed play in October of 2005, I was ecstatic.  I was one of the few to feel this way.  As a big-time Devils fan, it was brutal for me to go a full season with no hockey, but many hockey fans did not come back after the season-long lockout.  Also, since we are talking about hockey, many people had never been fans in the first place.

This is where the TV deal comes into play.  At the time, I blasted Bettman for allowing the NHL to leave ESPN, regardless of how little ESPN was willing to pay for broadcasting rights.  I figured that the NHL needed ESPN at any price because all sports fans lived on ESPN back then.  We fans watched Sportscenter in the morning, Sportscenter at night, Baseball Tonight every night in the summer, NFL PrimeTime on fall Sunday nights, and NHL 2Nite when it appeared on ESPN2.  At night, if there was no appointment TV, many of us would turn on ESPN and watch whatever game the Worldwide Leader was showing.

Therefore, for the NHL to sell its broadcasting rights to OLN, a network that nobody knew existed and that many people (myself included) did not even have in our cable packages was a disaster!  I listened to many playoff games that year on Yahoo! radio, because I did not have OLN.  Yes, NBC did broadcast some of the weekend playoff games and Games 3 through 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, but Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals were not available in my home.  These games were on OLN.  One occasionally hears tales of how the NBA nearly collapsed in the late 1970s, a time when the NBA Finals was televised on tape delay.  That was 40 years ago.  In the NHL, a mere 12 years ago, many people like myself had hundreds of channels at our fingertips but could not watch some Stanley Cup Finals games and many other Stanley Cup Playoffs games on TV.  That is rough.

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Anyway, some people were upset that they could not watch the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals in their living rooms, but many people were actually OK with missing the Carolina/Edmonton matchup.  No, this was not the Gretzky Oilers, the Messier Oilers, or even the McDavid Oilers.  This was a #8-seed Oilers team that would have comfortably missed the playoffs if not for having a ridiculous number of shootout wins.  In fact, this Oilers team remains one of the all-time leaders in terms of “points gained because shootout wins are counted as real wins”.  (See my previous link about “shootouts”.)  Therefore, this Oilers team was neither a great team nor a big ratings draw.  However, because there was so much NHL-roster turnover after missing a full season, it did not feel like Edmonton was on a Cinderella run either.  Meanwhile, Carolina was a stellar team that full season, but they have never exactly been a ratings bonanza.

Therefore, the NHL had a run of finals that went like this: 2003 New Jersey/Anaheim, 2004 Tampa Bay/Calgary, 2005 Lockout, 2006 Carolina/Edmonton, 2007 Ottawa/Anaheim.  I enjoyed every one of those series, especially the 2003 edition, but that was a brutal run for the NHL and its ratings.  The events of this era made the NHL and Bettman very easy to ridicule.

However, it is time to give Bettman credit where credit is due.  Since that 2003-7 stretch, things have really turned up for Bettman and the league.  First off, the 22 Stanley Cup Finalists from 2008 through 2018 have been:

Pittsburgh (four times)

Chicago (three times)

Boston (twice)

Detroit (twice)

Los Angeles (twice)

Nashville (once)

New Jersey (once)

NY Rangers (once)

Philadelphia (once)

San Jose (once)

Tampa Bay (once)

Vancouver (once)

Vegas (once)

Washington (once)

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While I do believe that Bettman has overexpanded (I would prefer to have 28 teams – get rid of Florida, Arizona, and one other), the list above shows that he has ended up with great Finals matchups for most of the past 11 years.  On the list above, New Jersey, San Jose, and Tampa Bay are the only ones who are not really great for ratings.  For a long time, people would have assumed the same about Nashville or Vegas, but Nashville – with all its country-music stars – last year and Vegas – as an expansion team – this year have been great stories.  In fact, from 1995 through 2004, only two Finals saw an average of at least 4-million TV viewers per game – 2000 and 2001.  Those matchups were Devils/Stars and Devils/Avalanche.  (Therefore, it must have been the Mighty Ducks, not the Devils, that dragged down the 2003-Finals rating!)  Meanwhile, since 2008, only one Finals matchup has failed to reach that 4-million mark.  That was the 2012 matchup, when the Kings took a 3-0 series lead before the opposing team won Games 4 and 5.  I will leave the opponent nameless on that one, but the fact remains that people tend to tune out Games 4 and 5 when one team wins the first three games.

Anyway, many of you are probably thinking, “Why credit Bettman for Finals matchups?  He has nothing to do with that.”  Well, here is where he does get credit.  For the 2006-7 season, OLN became “Versus”, and more cable providers began picking up this channel.  Therefore, once we made it to the 2008 and 2009 Penguins/Red Wings finals, most people could now access these national-cable games at home.  Then, in 2012, Versus became “NBC Sports Network”, which is now a household name for any sports fan.

Of course, the biggest two things that happened from 2008 through 2018 were that ESPN went to crap and that people no longer turn to their favorite channels to watch whatever happens to be airing.  Could Bettman have predicted in 2005 than ESPN in 2018 would spend 50% of the time covering national-anthem protests and 50% of the time covering NBA-player Tweets?  Of course not.  However, Bettman could have reasonably expected that TV audiences would eventually become spread across more outlets.  He could have predicted that channel brand recognition would ultimately become a non-factor in the sports world, and that is exactly what has happened.

The NHL has a good thing with NBC and the playoffs.  NBC utilizes NBC, NBC Sports, Golf Network, and occasionally CNBC for playoff (and Olympic) hockey games.  In 2005’s ESPN world, it would have been a problem to have the games on so many different channels.   Fortunately, this is not a problem in 2018.  People do not turn on ESPN, NBC Sports, MTV, or any other channel to watch whatever happens to be on the network.  Life is now about watching shows “On Demand” or watching sports live (or occasionally on DVR) on any channel or medium necessary.  NHL fans know when games take place and turn to the correct channels to find those games.

Thus, the NHL is in a good place right now.  Also, while ESPN is a complete non-factor with the NHL, we hockey fans can easily find highlights on NHL Network…or in a million different places on the Internet.  Therefore, all teams actually have a lot more national coverage than they had in 2006.  San Jose, Nashville, and Vegas – the three most recent Cup Finalists from the West – probably would have been considered bad ratings draws in the mid-‘00s, but times have changed.  All teams, including those three, are much more marketable in the modern media landscape.  In fact, if we were to have Carolina/Edmonton or Tampa Bay/Calgary as a Finals matchup now, I do not think it would be terrible for ratings.  Most hockey fans are finally back after the 2004-5 lockout, and there are no casual hockey fans.

True hockey fans will find their hockey games (especially playoff games) on TV, and the league has made its games and highlights very accessible.  Bettman took a short-term hit in the ‘00s by leaving ESPN, but he is getting the last laugh.  He found the NHL a great TV home with NBC; the NHL does well in the modern media climate; and he avoided paying ESPN’s sinking ship a large sum of money  to be a second-class citizen.

Mr. Bettman, I have disagreed with many things you have done over the years, but I commend you for a job well-done on navigating the television world.

NHL (and Devils) Playoff Preview

Heading into the MLB and NFL playoffs, I did not write much in the way of previews.  I figured that the other esteemed writers of the “Below the Belt Sports” staff had done a stellar enough job on their own.  Shockingly though, I am the only one on the blog writing about this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Go figure!  Therefore, allow me to cover two topics – how I expect the Devils, my favorite team, to do and how I expect the playoffs to turn out.

First of all, I am extremely pumped that the Devils are back in the playoffs.  In a sport in which more than half the league (16 out of 31 teams this year, 16 out of 30 teams before this year) makes the playoffs, six years out of the playoffs is an eternity.  Making the stretch feel worse was the fact that, from 1990 through 2012, the Devils missed the playoffs exactly twice.  That is all in the past now.

This year’s Devils team has been a thrill to watch.  Whenever the team is down by a goal or even two goals, I fully expect the team to come back.  No, the Devils’ defense is not amazing.  Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Brian Rafalski are not playing back there, but the defense – led by the smooth-skating Sami Vatanen – is solid enough to back an excellent offense.  Taylor Hall has been a Hart Trophy candidate (for MVP), racking up 39 goals and 93 points.  If one looks at the Devils’ stats, one will see a large drop off from Hall to everyone else, but that does not mean that the team lacked offense behind Hall.  Nico Hischier put up 52 points in a rookie season in which he played like a veteran from Day 1.  Will Butcher earned 44 points, an excellent total for a rookie defenseman, and Kyle Palmieri tallied 44 points as well (but missed 20 games to injury).

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All season long but especially down the stretch, the Devils found plenty of depth scoring.  While there were no gaudy numbers beyond Hall’s, 9 other Devils did reach double figures in goals.  Many of those goals were huge.  Down the stretch, the Devils played several weeks of playoff-like games, and the team received huge goals from the likes of Blake Coleman, Stefan Noesen, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha.  Patrick Maroon, acquired at the trade deadline from Edmonton, has been a physical beast and has settled nicely onto a line with Wood and Zacha.  Michael Grabner, also acquired before the deadline, has provided great speed and countless breakaways.  Of course, he never ever ever scores on those breakaways, but he is due.  Throw in the steady two-way play of Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle, and the Devils have a great offensive corps.

While the Devils finished the season with 97 points and the #8 seed in the East, I think these numbers undervalue the current Devils team.  The Devils’ worst stretches of the season coincided greatly with games that Taylor Hall missed and games in which the team’s goaltending was downright abysmal.  Keith Kinkaid was underwhelming early in the season; Corey Schneider has been underwhelming in 2018; but Keith Kinkaid has been on fire since ascending to the #1 role in late February.

In fact, for most of this season, I repeated, “The Devils could be a Cup contender if I had any faith in the team’s goaltending holding up for 4 rounds.”  Of course, I did not have that faith for much of the season.  I do now.

To be clear, I am not saying that the Devils will win the Stanley Cup.  They will be underdogs in every series that they play, and they will have home-ice advantage in none of those series.  That said, when I say “underdogs”, I do not mean “#16 vs. #1 in NCAA Tournament” “underdogs”.  I mean that the Devils will likely be given a 40% chance of winning each series.  Yes, that makes the Devils underdogs, but it also means that they could legitimately win any series in which they play.  Therefore, without further ado, I shall now unveil my playoff predictions:

First Round:

Devils over Tampa Bay in 7: The Devils went 3-0-0 (OK, 1-2-0-0 by my 3-2-1-0 points system) against Tampa Bay this year.  Both teams are fast teams with strong offenses.  The Lightning have a stronger defense, led by Victor Hedman, but the Devils can win this series if Kinkaid keeps up his strong play.

Boston over Toronto in 7: This should be a delightful series between two evenly-matched teams.  I give Boston the edge because of Tuukka Rask and having Game 7 at home.

Washington over Columbus in 5: You know how I feel about the value of non-regulation wins.  Columbus had 15 of them and would have finished 6 points behind Florida and outside the playoffs with a 3-2-1-0 system.  That means Columbus is a “paper tiger, Champ” in this year’s playoffs.  This spells an early exit for the Jackets.

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Pittsburgh over Philadelphia in 5: In the NHL, it is tough to have a team pull a Lebron James-memorial “Coast through most of the regular season and turn it on in the playoffs” routine, but I am pretty sure we are seeing it with Pittsburgh.  The Penguins actually turned things on during the last few months of the season, and the playoffs are a much different animal than the regular season.  Plus, after back-to-back Cups, the Pens should actually feel relaxed as if they are playing with house money.  Bye bye, Philly.  No more greased poles for you.

Nashville over Colorado in 5: Colorado is similar to the Devils in that an MVP candidate (Nathan MacKinnon for the Avs) has led a team to a surprise run to end a playoff drought.  The only difference is that Nashville awaits the Avs.  I am not a homer here.  I would expect the Devils to lose to Nashville in 5 as well.  Nashville’s defense is stacked; its offense is deep; it has Pekka Rinne; and it is playoff-tested.

Winnipeg over Minnesota in 5: Winnipeg is the second-best team in the league.  The Jets are fast, have a strong defense, and have the most underrated goalie in the league in Connor Hellebuyck.  In fact, Hellebuyck is the best goalie I saw this year.  He has the form and calm of a young Martin Brodeur.  No, I am not saying this guy is tied with Brodeur for being the GOAT, but I do believe he is the closest to a Brodeur prototype I have seen.  Minnesota, minus Ryan Suter, will not have enough to beat the Jets.

Los Angeles over Vegas in 7: Just a hunch here.  Everything on the ice has been a breeze for Vegas this year.  The Golden Knights have exceeded expectations all season long and thus have felt no pressure.  All of a sudden, Vegas is now the favorite in a playoff matchup.  I expect nerves and for Vegas to lose its first two games at home.  The Knights will recover to extend the series to 7 games, but Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, and Anze Kopitar will pull out their first clutch playoff win in a few years in Game 7.

San Jose over Anaheim in 7: Honestly, I have no idea about this one.  Both are regular playoff teams who have often disappointed in the spring.  I am flipping a coin on this one.

Second Round:

Boston over Devils in 6: Sorry, Devils fans.  Boston has been more physical with the Devils than other teams have been this year.  The Devils have not looked great against Boston.  I give Boston the series win.

Washington over Pittsburgh in 7: It is time.  Washington is finally going to get over the Pittsburgh hump.  Washington has been better than Pittsburgh in the regular season (again), and here is a hunch that Washington finally takes care of business.

Nashville over Winnipeg in 7: Look, many people have said that they do not like this playoff format.  I agree.  This is yet another year in which the best two teams in the conference will meet before the Conference Finals.  My solution: Return to the old format in which the #1 and #2 seeds are division champs, while #3-#8 are given to the next six-best teams in the conference, regardless of division.  This scenario alone would have saved Washington-Pittsburgh for the 2016 and 2017 Conference Finals and would save Nashville-Winnipeg for the 2018 Conference Finals.  I know that the NHL likes having a bracket, so I would be OK with not re-seeding the second round.  I would rather have re-seeding, but I can live without it.  Anyway, I wrote this long thing to hide the fact that I do not have a good reason for picking Nashville other than “Game 7 is in Nashville.”

Los Angeles over San Jose in 6: Unfortunately, Peter DeBoer is taken down as he was in 2012 by the Kings.

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Conference Finals:

Washington over Boston in 6: Now that Ovechkin has gotten over the Pittsburgh hump, the Capitals confidently roll past Boston and into the Stanley Cup Finals.

Nashville over San Jose in 6: Nashville is the deepest and most balanced team in the West, and this fact reappears against the Sharks.

Stanley Cup Finals:

Washington over Nashville in 6: Sure, Carrie Underwood is easy on the eyes, but karma comes back to bite her for changing “I’ve been waitin’ all night for Sunday night” (a wonderful, albeit factually completely incorrect song) into “Oooooooh, Sunday night” (a brutal song, aside from the fact that she is in the video).  Meanwhile, the Ovechkin train keeps rolling, and #8 finally hoists his first Stanley Cup.

 

That is what I think.  Hopefully, I am wrong, and the New Jersey Devils end up winning the Cup!

No, Points Are Not Always at a Premium Down the Stretch

Often in March and April, we hear hockey announcers say, “Points are at a premium this time of year” or “It’s always tougher to get points this time of year with all teams playing so hard.”  Nope!  This is yet another hockey cliché that has no backing.

Sure, when an NHL team faces a playoff team or a team fighting for a playoff berth in March, the former can expect a tough battle.  On the other hand, what about when teams play against teams “playing out the string” in March and April?  Those are the easiest points to earn!!!  In fact, it is far easier to play against bad teams in March and April than it is earlier in the year.  In March and April, bad teams have already unloaded their best players and have sometimes shut down injured players for the season.  Therefore, games against these teams should be walks in the park down the stretch….and don’t give me any “But those bad teams play extra-hard and are extra-motivated to win those games.”   (Don’t even gimme that, Biz Markie).  Guess who else plays “extra-hard and is extra-motivated to win those games”?  Good teams who are in the playoffs or in the thick of the playoff race.  As I mentioned earlier in the season, only in the NHL do people applaud effort game in and game out.  Effort should be an expectation, not something to be commended!  In fact, the only game I have ever watched and been compelled to think, “Wow, these players are not trying”, was a Devils/Sabres game in April 2016.  Both teams were playing as if they knew they were three games away from a 6-month offseason…which was actually the case.  But I digress…

On Saturday, a thrilling battle for the last four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference came to an end.  The Devils, Blue Jackets, and Flyers made their way into the playoffs, while the Panthers were left on the outside.  Furthermore, the Penguins did not clinch a playoff spot until two days prior.  Anyway, how do you think these five teams performed down the stretch against teams who were clearly out of the playoff race?  Really, really, ridiculously well!  In a moment, I will show you these teams’ records against out-of-playoff-contention teams from March 1 until the end of the season.  Because I am passionate about the NHL converting to a 3-2-1-0 points system, I have put the records in this format (regulation wins – non-regulation wins – non-regulation losses – regulation losses).  Please note that, in the actual standings, the first two figures are summed in a composite “Wins” category in which all wins are worth 2 points.

 

New Jersey Devils: 5-0-0-0

Florida Panthers: 8-1-2-1

Pittsburgh Penguins: 4-1-2-1

Philadelphia Flyers: 3-0-1-1

Columbus Blue Jackets: 4-3-0-1

 

As you can see, these five teams “cleaned up” on bad teams.  Therefore, no, points are not always “at a premium” down the stretch.

Also, for you non-hockey fans out there – first off, I am glad that you made it this deep into a hockey article.  That makes me feel proud.  Secondly, please note that this rule extends to other sports as well.  Take it from a Mets fan who watched the Mets wipe the floor with bad teams (who had unloaded many of their good players) in August/September runs in 2015 and 2016, only for the Mets to change from “mopper” to “moppee” down the stretch in 2017.  No, in MLB, wins are not always “at a premium” down the stretch either.

Bring Back “The ‘Hey’ Song”

To all the Devils fans out there, this is a letter that I have mailed to Hugh Weber, “President – Prudential Center and the New Jersey Devils.

Dear Mr. Weber,

 

Please bring back “The ‘Hey’ Song” (“Rock and Roll Part II”) after Devils goals.  I know that you are always looking for ways to improve the fan experience, and this is the #1 way that you can achieve this objective for hard-core Devils fans.  All of our greatest moments as Devils fans involve this song.  From “Henrique, It’s Over!!!” to Jeff Friesen’s two goals in Game 7 against Anaheim to Neal Broten’s and Randy McKay’s overtime goals in the 1995 playoffs, this is the song to which we celebrated.  Thus, this is the song to which I – and most other Devils fans – would love to celebrate future Devils goals.  If you could bring back this song for this year’s playoffs (in an ideal world in which the Devils make the playoffs) or for next year’s opener (in a less-than-ideal world), I – and many, many other Devils fans -would be very grateful.

At the same time, I understand why you scrapped this song a few years ago.  You did not like that many fans would chant, “You suck”, while cheering.  I agree with you on that one. The “You suck” is juvenile, and it actually devalues the Devils’ accomplishments, in that anyone should be able to score against someone who “sucks”.  That said, the people who chanted “You suck” during “The Hey Song” now do it twice as often.  They chant it during the current goal song, and they also chant it a few minutes later when the crowd sings “The Hey Song” on its own (with accompaniment from a horn).  Therefore, by bringing back “The Hey Song” as the official goal song, you would actually cut the amount of “You suck”s in half, which is a good thing.

Anyway, I am a simple man.  I love coming to Devils games, and I love hearing “The ‘Hey’ Song” after goals.  That is all I want.  I am jealous when I hear fans of the Rangers, Blackhawks, Isles, and countless other fans get to cheer along with their true goal songs.  I, along with many other Devils fans, wish to hear the Devils’ true goal song played once again after goals as well.

Thank you for your time.

 

Sincerely,

Michael Walker

A Player Deserves a Point for a Screen

I am writing this post to answer a question once and for all.  The question is, “If I write a post, and nobody reads it; did I still write the post?”  I figure, what better way is there to accomplish this than by posting that the NHL should award points to players for screens.  What topic is sexier than that?

This thought enters my head a few times per NHL season, and last night was one of those instances.  Recent Devils acquisition Patrick Maroon had a perfect screen on a Travis Zajac goal, but he did not receive a point for his efforts.  To me, that is silly.  The screen was the #1 reason for the goal.  Sure, Zajac had to make a good shot, which he did.  However, Canadiens goalie Charlie Lindgren likely makes the save if he sees the puck.  In fact, when an NHL player takes an unscreened first shot (as opposed to a rebound), an NHL goalie saves it nearly every time.

In hockey, a forward often finds himself parked in front of the opposing net while his teammates pass the puck around the zone.  As soon as one of his teammates prepares to shoot, this forward has three offensive responsibilities: screen the goalie, try to deflect the puck, and look for the rebound.  If the player successfully deflects the puck into the net or puts a rebound into the net, the player earns a point (a goal).  However, if the player successfully screens the goalie to allow for a goal, this player is unrewarded statistically?  This seems quite incongruent to me.

Image result for screening a goalie

Therefore, I feel that the official scorer should have the right to award a point for a screen.  In this case, the person who would – under current rules – earn the secondary assist would not earn a point.  I am OK with that though.  Sure, the second-to-last pass setting up a goal is important to the goal, but it is not as important as the screen.  The screen more directly contributes to the goal than the secondary pass.  Therefore, the screener deserves the point.

Hopefully, I have now answered my question, “If I write a post, and nobody reads it; did I still write the post?”