Category Archives: Hockey

NHL Week In Review – Joel Quenneville, The Resilient Red Wings, And The Senators Wild Ride

Hello, beautiful Bench-Lifers. I am back again for another look at the biggest NHL storylines from the past week. There was a ton to talk about during the past seven days so let’s jump right in.

Blackhawk Down

A new day has dawned for the Chicago Blackhawks. On Tuesday morning, in the midst of a five-game losing streak, the team fired long-time head coach Joel Quenneville. The mustachioed bench boss was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL at the time of his firing and had won three Stanley Cup championships over his 10 seasons with the team. Jeremy Colliton, who was coaching the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL, was named his successor and became the youngest coach in the league at 38-years-old.

Quenneville is the second-winningest coach in NHL history (890 wins), trailing only the legendary Scotty Bowman (1,244 wins). Ironically enough, the Bowman regime has a massive part to play in this whole scenario. Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks general manager (and Scotty’s son), butted-heads with Quenneville over organizational matters throughout the entirety of their working relationship. Mark Lazerus has a fantastic piece about the whole situation on The Athletic, but basically, there were three main points of contention that the article covered.

  1. In the 2011-12 season, Bowman forced Barry Smith upon Quenneville as an assistant coach. Scotty Bowman was a senior advisor in the organization at the time and Smith was an old friend who had coached with him for over 15 seasons. The decision infuriated Quenneville and started a theme of resentment between him and the Bowman clan. Interestingly enough, Smith was immediately brought back this past week as an assistant coach once Quenneville was canned.
  2. At the end of the 2016-17 season, Quenneville’s best friend/assistant coach Mike Kitchen was fired by Bowman. The two started coaching together in 1998 with the St. Louis Blues and had spent over 12 seasons alongside one another behind the bench.
  3. Bowman had made some trades that Quenneville vehemently disagreed with over the past few years, most notably, the Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin deals.

The way I see it is that Bowman saved his own ass by firing Quenneville. Apparently, that is how former Blackhawks’ tough guy Daniel Carcillo sees it too.

Now, the head coach was not perfect by any means. He was not some infallible deity that could do no wrong with the hockey gods. Quenneville routinely frustrated fans by showing blind loyalty to veteran players while youthful talent waited for their chance. The Blackhawks had first-round exits in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons before completely bottoming-out last year. Due to this, changes definitely had to be made. With that being said, Bowman is more responsible for an under-performing roster than Quenneville was.

The head coach did not trade Hjalmarsson to the Coyotes nor did he make the Panarin for Brandon Saad swap. He did not trade Teuvo Teravainen, Philip Danault, or Vinnie Hinistroza in the past two years. The general manager is responsible for those moves. Furthermore, Bowman inherited his Cup-winning core from Dale Tallon when he was hired in 2009. He did not draft Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, or Corey Crawford. Likewise, Bowman responded to the Blackhawks’ worst season in a decade by signing Chris Kunitz, Brandon Manning, and Cam Ward this past offseason. Talk about some real game changers.

Negativity aside, I fully believe Bowman deserves credit for the moves he made during the 2012-13 and 2014-15 Cup wins. Players like Johnny Oduya, Michal Handzus, and Antoine Vermette were integral playoff pieces and shrewd acquisitions.

All of this adds up to the Blackhawks losing the first two games of Colliton’s NHL coaching career. Their losing streak now sits at seven games. After a 6-2-2 start, their record sits at 6-8-3. Quenneville was caught up in a power struggle, and he ultimately deserved a better fate. Regardless, he will be able to coach again any time he wants to as certain teams are likely drooling at the thought of bringing him in. Quenneville will be fine. I am not sure the same can be said about the Blackhawks.

Comebacks And Curly Fries In The Motor City

Before saying anything else, the Detroit Red Wings are not a good team. I am a diehard fan myself, and while they have been incredibly fun lately, I am not mistaking them for a team with realistic playoff aspirations.

With that being said, OH MY GOD THE RED WINGS REBUILD IS IN FULL SWING! WE’LL BE BACK IN NO TIME! IN LARKIN WE TRUST!

*ahem*

Yes, the Red Wings have won six of their last seven games after a dismal 1-7-2 start to the year. They have won three straight games despite trailing by multiple goals in each contest. It is the first time in franchise history that the team has accomplished such a feat. Up front, there have been fantastic performances from some of their young leaders. In particular, Dylan Larkin is playing like an absolute stud. He has seven goals and 10 assists through 17 games this season including the overtime winner against the New York Rangers on Friday.

Similarly, Andreas Athanasiou has been dangerous on a nightly basis. He has four points in his past two games and 10 points through 13 games this season. On Saturday, Anthony Mantha single-handedly spearheaded the comeback against the Carolina Hurricanes with two goals in the third period. Tyler Bertuzzi has shown he belongs at the NHL level and 2017 first-round pick Michael Rasmussen has delivered tantalizing flashes of his power-forward potential.

With that in mind, perhaps the best part about the whole start to the season has been 2016 first-round pick Dennis Cholowski on the back end. On draft night, many fans (including myself) were skeptical when the team traded down, jettisoning Pavel Datsyuk’s contract to the Arizona Coyotes, but passing on Jakob Chychrun in the process. Cholowski was a moderately unknown commodity at the time as he played in the BCHL during his draft year. On the other hand, Chychrun had been considered a top-10 pick early on in 2016 while playing for the Sarnia Sting in the OHL. Cholowski surprised many people out of training camp this season and ultimately wound up on the team for opening night. Since then, all he has done is impress with two goals, six assists, and a poise that far exceeded expectations.

Again, the Red Wings are not good. This is a team that was so bad early on in the season, that Arby’s changed a decade-old curly fries promotion. In years past, fans would get a free order of curly fries whenever a Red Wings player scored a hat trick. All they had to do was bring in a box score of the game. Now, Arby’s is giving away a free order of curly fries whenever the Red Wings score three goals in a game. There is lowering the bar, and then there is that. But hey, since the changeover the Red Wings have scored at least three goals in seven of eight games. All praise the power of the curly fry.

The Uber Ride Heard ‘Round The World

At this point, I hope we all know what happened. If not, here is the video. During a road trip to Arizona in late October, several Ottawa Senators players were unknowingly recorded by their Uber driver as they mocked their coaching staff in a five-minute rant. Matt Duchene was the most vocal of the bunch and continuously mentioned how clueless assistant coach Martin Raymond was while Chris Wideman and Thomas Chabot laughed at the team’s inefficient penalty killing.

Now, this is not a great situation, especially for a franchise that has had such a tumultuous year. It is embarrassing for the players and provided an unnecessary headache in an already challenging season. With that being said, I thought this whole ordeal was blown way out of proportion. I mean, who hasn’t badmouthed a co-worker, customer or boss before? The difference is, if you knew you were being recorded, you probably would have kept your opinions to yourself. Gerard Gallant, head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights, had a great take on the situation when asked by a Toronto Sun reporter.

“All the players talk about coaches all the time, believe me, and vice versa.” He paused to laugh. “We talk about them too.”

Obviously! It is cliche, but you cannot please everyone. A hockey team consists of a ton of individuals having to try and work together to achieve a common goal. Not everybody is going agree with the methods, and in return, they will vent about it in privacy. This video never should have surfaced because all it is are athletes voicing their frustrations.

Thankfully, the Senators won two of their four games this week, including a wild comeback against the powerful Tampa Bay Lightning. Things would have been brutal if they went on a massive losing streak after this media firestorm.

I will say, one positive from the whole situation is that this tweet was made (sorry Sens fans).

Fabulous Firsts

These players scored the first NHL goal of their careers this week: Denis Gurianov (DAL), Brett Seney (NJD), Jeremy Lauzon (BOS).

Quick Hits

The Boston Bruins top line of Brad Marchand (2G,3A), Patrice Bergeron (2G,4A), and David Pastrnak (5G,2A) absolutely dominated during four games this week. The trio has accounted for 58% of the Bruins goals this season (31/53). They are simply terrific.

Continuing on with the Bruins, shoutout to Jaroslav Halak who has been downright magnificent with Beantown this season. Halak has posted a 6-1-2 record with a 1.77 goals-against average, .945 save percentage, and two shutouts to start 2018-19. Aside from a five-goal clunker against the Canucks on Thursday, he has been practically unbeatable. Tuukka Rask remains on personal leave which means Halak is manning the crease for the near future.

The Minnesota Wild have been quietly formidable through their first portion of the season. They are riding an 8-2-0 record in their last 10 games and sit at 11-4-2 on the year. Zach Parise’s resurgence has been a big part of their success. He has delivered seven goals and nine assists through his first 17 games after posting back-to-back seasons with less than 50 points. Here’s hoping he stays healthy!

William Nylander continues to play the waiting game with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The slick Swedish forward has until 5PM on December 1st to sign a contract or else he will be ineligible to play this season. Both parties are apparently still quite far apart with the financials. I understand the hesitation from Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. 1). This is his first big contract dispute as an NHL general manager. If he caves and gives Nylander a big contract, agents will prey on him for years to come. 2). He has to try his best to get Nylander signed to a reasonable contract that will not handcuff the team’s financial abilities in the future. Apparently, the Leafs have reached out to possible trade partners in recent days. Dubas has continuously stated that he will not trade Nylander, but with the clock ticking, desperation may set in during the coming weeks. Not having Nylander playing and/or not having assets in return would severely hurt the Leafs chances of getting past Tampa Bay and Boston in the playoffs this season.

A couple of streaks were extended for Florida Panthers players on Sunday evening. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov both picked up an assist during a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. This extended their point streaks to 12 and 11 games, respectively. The two have formed a daunting unit with Aleksander Barkov on the top line.

The Nashville Predators have become the third team in NHL history to win their first eight road games of the season. Last year’s President Trophy winners are well on their way to another magnificent campaign. They sit atop the NHL standings with a 13-3-0 record and are currently rolling on a five-game win streak.

About three weeks ago, New Jersey Devils center Brian Boyle announced that his leukemia was in remission. Boyle was diagnosed with the disease back in 2017. On Tuesday, which was coincidentally Hockey Fights Cancer night in Pittsburgh, Boyle scored the first hat trick of his 705-game NHL career. Sometimes sports can be pure poetry. What a touching moment for Boyle and his family. Good luck to him the rest of the season.

Milestone Makers

San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton played in his 1500th career game on Thursday night during a 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars.

Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise scored the 700th point of his career on Thursday night during a 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.

Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Patrick Marleau picked up the 600th assist of his career on Friday night during a 6-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils.

Thanks for reading and see you next week!

NHL Week In Review – Elias Pettersson, The Spunky Coyotes, And The NHL Global Series

Hello, beautiful Bench-Lifers. It has been a while. Yes, I Raymond Harrison have been a bit of a degenerate lately when it comes to producing content for this blog… BUT THAT CHANGES TODAY. I am motivated, I am keen, I am three coffees deep, and I am excited to bring you my new weekly feature where I go over the big storylines from the past week in the NHL.

This week has been a doozy with a ton of topics to address so without further ado, let’s do that hockey *insert Chance The Rapper gif here*.

Elias Pettersson And The Cardiac Canucks

I mean, sure, Elias Pettersson was one of the Calder Trophy favourites coming into the season, but my goodness, this guy is going straight for the MVP. Pettersson was downright dominant during Friday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. The 19-year-old set several Canucks franchise records during the wild win. He is the youngest Canucks player to ever tally five points in a game, the first Canucks rookie to ever have five points in a game, and the first Canucks player to ever make people forget that this team signed Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel to multi-year deals this summer.

Pettersson has been a massive success story as he leads all NHL rookies in scoring despite missing six games due to injury. He has nine goals and six assists through nine games this season, and most of his points have come via a highlight-reel play. A further point that should be made is that he has formed a formidable duo with Brock Boeser on the top line. Boeser had a four-point game during the back-and-forth affair versus the Avalanche and the two connected on a goal that would have made the Sedin twins proud.

All of this has led to a surprising surge from the Canucks that has them sitting at second place in the Pacific Division with a 9-6-0 record. They have won three games in a row heading into a six-game road trip. The team was expected to finish at the bottom of the standings, and while it is still early in the season, there is a definite reason to be optimistic about the future of this team. Jim Benning’s faults aside, the Canucks have drafted quite well over the past half decade and are amassing an impressive collection of young talent. In the wise words of Dimitri Filipovic, you cannot spell elite without Elias Pete.

Desert Dogs Dashing Up The Standings

The Arizona Coyotes are actually good folks!!! No, pigs are not flying, hell has not frozen over, and Joe Thornton has not won a Stanley Cup (yet). The Coyotes are rolling on a five-game winning streak right now where they have outscored opponents 24-7. They have held a 3-0 first-period lead in each of the past three games. The team had one of the most offensively inept starts in NHL history to begin the season, but they have completely turned things around and sit with a 7-5-0 record.

While the offense has been producing, the defense has been even better. They are the stingiest team in the NHL as their 2.00 goals-against per game is the lowest mark in the league. They have the second-best penalty kill percentage in the NHL at 92.1% and they have scored a remarkable SEVEN shorthanded goals through their first 12 games of the season.

Perhaps the biggest reason for their success has been the play of goaltender Antti Raanta.  The Finnish netminder has won four of his last five starts, posting a 2.01 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in the process. Raanta was fantastic during the second half of last season once returning from an injury. Clearly, he has continued that success into 2018-19.

The 6-5-0 record the Coyotes posted in October was their best October record since the 2013-14 season. The win streak has allowed them to quickly gain ground in a shaky Pacific Division. The Ducks have lost seven of their last eight after a 5-1-1 start, the Kings just fired their head coach, and the Golden Knights are missing key contributors. Skeptics have wondered for years when the Coyotes would start to perform at a higher level. They have an offensive attack spearheaded by Clayton Keller and Alex Galchenyuk, a defensive core headlined by All-Star Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and a reliable goaltender with a career .922 save percentage. This is not a claim saying the Coyotes will steamroll opponents en route to a Stanley Cup, but they are actually going to be playing meaningful hockey in the second half of the season for the first time in a long time. Must be the power of the Kachina.

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The NHL Goes Global and Patrik Laine Goes Off

The Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers played a two-game set in Helsinki, Finland this week as part of the NHL Global Series. It was the seventh time in league history that the NHL has played regular-season games in Europe. Both games were sold out and international fans were treated to some exciting hockey.

In the first game, the Jets arose victorious on the back of Patrik Laine. The Finnish sniper had a hat trick in front of droves of roaring fans, pacing the Jets to a 4-2 win. Laine’s wicked release was on full display throughout the contest.

The Panthers responded in the second game with a 4-2 win of their own. Roberto Luongo returned from an MCL sprain and made 32 saves in his first game action since October 6. The Panthers had stumbled out of the gate without their starting netminder so his return will be a massive boost for their playoffs aspirations. The power-play also continued to dominate as the Panthers were three-for-five with the man advantage in the game. Evgenii Dadonov and Keith Yandle both had a goal and an assist in the victory while Patrik Laine scored again for the Jets. Mike Hoffman also extended his nine-game point streak with this filthy wrister.

Anytime the NHL goes overseas it is always an enjoyable experience. Seeing other countries celebrate hockey as much as us Canadians is a heartwarming spectacle. They plan to visit several new countries in future years which has me wondering when the Norwegian series pits Mats Zuccarello against Andreas Martinsen in a BATTLE OF THE AGES.

Fabulous Firsts

These players scored the first NHL goal of their careers this week: Rourke Chartier (SJS), Michael Rasmussen (DET), Alex Formenton (OTT), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (MTL), Vladislav Kamenev (COL), Sheldon Dries (COL), Nick Seeler (MIN), Mathieu Joseph (TBL).

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Quick Hits

The Buffalo Sabres (9-2 win over the Ottawa Senators, 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers) outscored the Buffalo Bills (41-9 loss to the Chicago Bears) this weekend.

The Sabres also have the new best line in the NHL. The top combination of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Jason Pominville have more points than any other trio in the league since October 20.

Slava Voynov is thinking about an NHL comeback as he applied for reinstatement by the league this week. In case you forgot, Voynov was suspended indefinitely by the NHL after he pleaded no contest to a domestic violence incident in 2015. He reportedly choked and beat his wife with regularity, including a situation that required her to get eight stitches above her eye. I’ll keep things blunt. Fuck Slava Voynov and I pray the NHL’s moral compass is intact because he should never be able to play in the league again.

New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider made his first start of the 2018-19 season and subsequently lost 4-3 to the Detroit Red Wings. Schneider is currently riding a ridiculous 13-game winless streak when making a start in the regular season. He is 0-11-2 in that span and has allowed three or more goals in every single game. The futility is honestly kind of impressive.

The New York Islanders have produced a five-game winning streak out of nowhere. The team lost John Tavares in the offseason, but they look no worse for wear as they sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division. All five of the games were against fellow Metropolitan teams which make the streak even more important. Thomas Greiss has been remarkable with a 4-2-0 record, 1.85 goals-against average, and .944 save percentage this season. Josh Bailey has also quietly put together an eight-game point streak. The Islanders were expected to be basement-dwellers in the East, but the addition of Barry Trotz behind the bench has done wonders for the team.

Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen has been magnificent in his return to the NHL. After a six-season hiatus, Koskinen has won his first three starts of 2018-19. He has produced a 2.02 goals-against average, .935 save percentage, and one shutout. Cam Talbot has been mediocre to start the campaign which should lead to more appearances for the Finnish netminder.

Milestone Makers

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury picked up the 50th shutout of his career on Saturday night during a 3-0 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal scored the 400th goal of his career on Saturday night during a 5-1 win over the St. Louis Blues.

Jason Pominville (BUF), Ron Hainsey (TOR), and Jason Spezza (DAL) all played in their 1000th career regular season game this week.

The Montreal Canadiens set an NHL record by scoring two goals in two seconds (!!) during a 6-4 win over the Washington Capitals. The second goal was an empty-netter, but impressive nonetheless.

See ya next week and god bless Dennis Cholowski!

Breaking down the 2018 Hart Trophy Finalists

Tonight is the NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas and, while I’m sure people are itching for some Lady Byng talk, the Hart Trophy for the league’s MVP usually garners the most interest. This year you will be shocked to not see a Crosby, Malkin or McDavid (actually I’m really surprised to not see a McDavid) on the finalist list for the award. All three of the 2018 candidates have never been a finalist for the award before and all three have an equally legitimate claim to win the thing. In what should be the most open race for the MVP in years, here’s the case for Taylor Hall, Anze Kopitar and Nathan MacKinnon to each win the Hart.

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Top 10 Biggest Blunders in Sports History

Professional athletes are the embodiment of power, grace, and skill. They are the peak of physical fitness and perform at the highest level for the world’s enjoyment. Likewise, they are also human and are prone to the same mistakes and lapses of judgment that us mere mortals face on a daily basis. The thing is: when I fall down the stairs at the Wizmer House, spilling three drinks I had just purchased all over myself, only the select few individuals who happened to be looking will remember my dignified tumble. For professional athletes, their mistakes are broadcasted on live television and will live in infamy for the rest of their lives. This article is going to look at some of the biggest blunders that sport has ever seen. The way these are ranked is based on how egregious the mistake was, and the severity of the situation. If there are any that you think I missed, do not hesitate to let me know. Without further ado, let us dive right in.

10. Patrik Stefan and the empty net whiff.

It is impossible to have a list of the biggest sports blunders without including this dandy from former first-overall pick Patrik Stefan. I mean, you know your career was bad when the biggest highlight is you not scoring. Stefan is one of the worst busts in draft history and this clip is a perfect illustration of his tumultuous career. The fact that he woefully misses the empty net only to see Ales Hemsky tie the game with seconds remaining is just perfect poetic penance for Stefan as he retired 13 games later. Thankfully, the Stars still won the game 6-5 in a shootout but this remains one of the most embarrassing moments in NHL history.

9. Jose Canseco and the header home run.

Jose Canseco will always get the last laugh about this video. After all, he is a two-time World Series champion, former American League MVP, six-time All-Star, and four-time Silver Slugger winner. REGARDLESS, the sheer improbability and hilarity of this clip make it one of the all-time best baseball bloopers. The saving grace is that this was during a meaningless regular season game in May. It was the 25th anniversary of this clip just last week.

8. Patrick Roy and the Statue of Liberty.

The Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings had one of the best rivals in NHL history during the 1990s and early 2000s. With a blood feud and multiple hall-of-famers on both sides, it was always must-see TV when these two squads were playing. Entering the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the two teams were tied at two cups a piece in the past decade before matching up in the Conference Finals. The Avalanche jumped out to a 3-2 series lead and had a chance to finish the series off at home in Game 6. Instead, Patrick Roy tried to showboat after robbing Steve Yzerman in close and Shanahan buried what turned out to be the game-winning goal. The Red Wings went on to win Game 7 by a score of 7-0 and defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in five games to win their third cup in six years.

7. Leon Lett’s Super Bowl fumble.

See, if the Cowboys went on to lose this game then this could perhaps be the biggest blunder ever; but, they were playing the Buffalo Bills so obviously they were up by 35 points at this time in the game. Lett could realistically make another appearance on this list for his Thanksgiving Day debacle against the Miami Dolphins, but since it was in the regular season I decided to leave it out. Instead, we are blessed with this tasty gem that looks like it is straight out of Madden 18. Lett, being the showman that he is, decided to start celebrating his forthcoming touchdown at the ten-yard-line. Unfortunately, Don Beebe definitely had the Bills covering +40 as he hustled his butt and stripped Lett right before the goal line. The Cowboys still won the Super Bowl, handing the Bills their third consecutive loss in the big game, but Lett delivered another web gem to go into the archives.

6. JR Smith is off the henny again.

This is what inspired me to do this list in the first place. JR Smith has always been a bit of a wildcard on the court. The man will hit a half-court heave with a hand in his face but brick the most open jumper the world has ever seen. Furthermore, he has many fantastic off court hits such as his shirtless appearance during the World Series, and everyone’s favourite DM – “you trying to get the pipe?”. All these things aside, Smith has proven to be a serviceable player over the course of his NBA career and he played a big role during the Cavaliers 3-1 comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals.

WELL.. last night he had one of the biggest blunders in NBA history and it could not come at a more costly time for his team. The Warriors opened the game as 13 point favourites over the Cavs and many people thought that the Dubs would steamroll their way to another championship. Instead, LeBron James did what LeBron James does and put up 49 points during regulation which gave the Cavs a chance to win Game 1. George Hill went to the foul line with 4.7 seconds left and hit his first free throw to tie the game at 107. He bricked the second, but thankfully JR Smith was there to collect the rebound and kick it to LeBron for a game-winning shot opportunity. Oh, sorry. Wait a second. JR, a man who has played 13 seasons in the NBA and makes an annual salary of $12.8 million USD actually thought that the Cavs were in the lead and tried to dribble the clock out. I have coached Grade 6 kids in minor league basketball who had better late game awareness than JR did in this situation. Alas, the Warriors went on to decimate the Cavs in OT winning the game 124-114 and wasting LeBron’s historic 51 point effort. Thanks, Henny god.

5. Fred Brown forgets who he plays for.

Poor Fred Brown. After some guy named Michael Jordon knocked down a 17-footer to give UNC a late 63-62 lead in the 1982 National Championship, Brown brought the ball up the court for a last gasp attempt at stealing a victory. After faking a pass to teammate Eric ‘Sleepy’ Floyd, Brown thought he had Eric Smith open at the top of the key. Instead, Brown made a worse visual decision than I did the last time I took a girl home from the bar and passed the ball straight to UNC’s James Worthy which effectively ended the game. Brown and Georgetown would avenge their demons in 1984 as they knocked off Houston to win their first National Championship but this blunder still lives large in the minds of the Hoyas faithful.

4. Steve Bartman becomes the most hated man in Illinois.

We all know the Bartman story. The Chicago Cubs, a team seemingly cursed from ever winning the World Series again, were up 3-2 in the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. They were searching for their first title since 1908 and were up 3-0 in the 8th inning of Game 6. Pan in, Luis Castillo hits a fly ball towards foul ground as outfielder Moisés Alou starts to track it. Instead of Alou catching it for the second out of the inning, this odd looking fellow wearing headphones reaches over the wall and interferes with the catch. As (bad) luck would have it, the Cubs went on to surrender eight runs in the inning before losing Game 7 by a score of 9-6. Bartman instantly became the most hated person in the stadium, and eventually in the city, as he was sent a multitude of death threats during the whole situation. Thankfully, the Cubs ended the curse in 2016 after defeating the Cleveland Indians in seven games and they attempted to rectify the Bartman incident by sending him a World Series ring of his own.

3. Chris Webber tries to be the Prince of Persia.

First off, for those uncultured swine who do not know what the Prince of Persia is – it is an older video game series where the protagonist has the ability to rewind time and correct his mistakes. Chris Webber certainly wishes he had that capability after this colossal choke job. It was the 1993 National Championship game. Michigan had made it all the way back to the finals after being manhandled by Duke in the championship the year before. Webber hauls in the rebound with 20 seconds left in a 73-71 game. He clearly walks with the ball but the officials do not call the travel. He proceeds past half-court, gets cornered with the ball, and looks at the official to reset and call timeout so they can draw up a play to tie the game. Except, Michigan had no timeouts remaining which meant UNC automatically got to shoot two technical foul shots effectively ending the game. It was a painful loss for Wolverine fans and haunted Webber for the entirety of his playing career.

2. Bill’s Buck Up.

We’ve talked about the Cubs curse already, but the Red Sox endured a lengthy World Series drought of their own. The Red Sox were up 3-2 in the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. Game 6 was tied 5-5 in the bottom of the 10th inning. Mets left fielder Mookie Wilson hit a slow roller towards Buckner on the first base line which should have been the third out of the frame. Unbelievably, Bucker fails to get his glove under the ball and it rolls past him, bringing in the winning run and sending the series to a deciding Game 7. The Red Sox ended up blowing a 3-0 lead in that game and ultimately lost 8-5 as the Mets won their second World Series in franchise history. The curse continued for 18 more years before the Red Sox finally won in 2004 to end the 86-year drought.

1. Pete Carroll and the worst play call ever.

Yes, the worst blunder on my list is actually a coaches decision. With just 26 seconds remaining, the Seahawks are two yards away from winning back-to-back Super Bowls. For some inexplicable reason, Pete Carroll decided to throw the ball even with bruising running back Marshawn Lynch lined up on Russell Wilson’s left. Lynch was arguably the best goal-line back in the entire league, and the Seahawks were in their 94 Buck formation which was a running formation. Still, Carroll changed the play to a pass and the rest is history. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler jumped Jermaine Kearse and picked the ball off at the goal line to give the Patriots the unlikeliest of wins. It is one of the most mind-boggling decisions ever made at such a high level and prevented the Seahawks from becoming a possible dynasty.

San Jose Sharks v. Vegas Golden Knights Round Two Preview

For half of the playoff teams, the Cup dream is already over. For the other half, they’ve earned the right to continue battling for Lord Stanley’s Mug. Every squad left in the playoffs accumulated over 100 points during the regular season which suggests we are in for a doozy of a second round. My preview of the Winnipeg/Nashville series will be out tomorrow.

I also have to make note that I am a man capable of eating my words and can admit when I was wrong. I expected to watch two long, bitter, Pacific Division matchups in the first round which ultimately led to a Kings-Ducks semi-final. I was off on all counts as both the Knights and Sharks brought out the brooms and steamrolled their opponents with speed and great goaltending. Let’s dive into the series analysis.

(P1) Las Vegas Golden Knights v. (P3) San Jose Sharks

Season series: VGK 3-0-1; SJS 1-2-1.

Golden Knights Round 1 Recap:  Vegas made the Kings look slower than a Hal Gill breakaway. Their relentless forecheck and ability to stretch the neutral zone was simply too much for L.A to handle. The Golden Knights won every game by only a single goal but it was quite apparent that they were the better team. They received contributions from up and down the lineup as 13 of 19 players recorded at least a point during the sweep. Marc-Andre Fleury (proud owner of the best smile in the world) was also an absolute wall in net. He followed up the best regular season of his career with a heckuva performance posting a scintillating 0.65 GAA and .977 SV% with two shutouts. In reference to the Kings, I have not seen such an inability to score since last weekend when I tried to talk to a girl at the bar – apparently, magic tricks are a bad way to pick up chicks, who knew?  Vegas has been on a storybook ride this season and many pundits (including myself) figured that the playoffs would be a rude awakening for them. The Golden Knights just continued to prove everyone wrong as they executed their gameplan to perfection.

Sharks Round 1 Recap: SoCal prevailed in the battle of California as the Sharks chowed down on the Ducks. Similar to what Vegas did to L.A, San Jose skated circles around Anaheim and exposed their lumbering style of play. Offensive leaders Couture and Pavelski had dominant performances as they both tallied 5 points in the sweep. Even with great showings from those two, it was Martin Jones who was the Sharks MVP of the first round. He was a stalwart between the pipes with a 1.00 GAA and a .970 SV%. The Sharks offense (which outscored the Ducks 16-4 in the series) has really started clicking since the addition of Evander Kane at the trade deadline and they’ve done it without the services of Joe Thornton who has been out of the lineup since January 23rd. The Sharks had arguably the most impressive first-round performance of any team.

Series breakdown: This series should be a great showcase of speed and skill as both teams have a ton of it. The two goalies were the stars of their respective shows in round one but I am expecting an offensive explosion here in the conference semi-finals. Both teams have potent top lines with a wealth of scoring depth at their disposal. While this looks like a fairly even match-up the biggest advantage seems to be San Jose’s power play. They were electric with the extra man against the Ducks as they converted at a 30% clip (6/20). The Golden Knights have the worst PP of any team left in the playoffs as they only scored on 8.3% of their chances (1/12) against the Kings. I do think that T-Mobile Arena is one of the more intimidating buildings to play in as the atmosphere is absolutely insane. I have been a Golden Knights “hater” so to speak throughout the season but I am jumping on the hype train and starting to believe. As good as Martin Jones has been I think Fleury will be able to outduel him in the cage and make those momentum-swinging saves that have become habitual for the ex-Penguin. I believe this will be a back and forth series with standout performances and tons of drama but I am pushing my chips into the middle of the table and yelling “Viva Las Vegas” all the way to the conference finals.

Prediction: Golden Knights in 7.

Picture credit to NHL.com (https://www.nhl.com/news/golden-knights-marc-andre-fleury-vs-sharks-martin-jones-goalie-breakdown/c-298207468).

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview: First Round Breakdown and Predictions

The most wonderful time of the year is finally back. NHL Playoffs begin on Wednesday night and the boys at Bench Life are pretty excited about it. If you haven’t already, join our NHL Playoff Bracket Challenge quickly for a chance to win some cash and a Bench Life Sports t-shirt. Now, without wasting anymore time let’s get into it.

Matchups

Tampa Bay Lightning – 113 points (A1) vs. New Jersey Devils – 97 points (WC2)

Season Series: New Jersey 3-0-0; Tampa Bay 0-2-1

Breakdown

Tampa Bay has been at the top of the conference all season long, but the Devils have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL as of late. More specifically, Taylor Hall has made the Devils one of the hottest teams in the NHL lately. The former 1st overall draft pick in 2010 put together the best season of his career, finishing with 93 points and almost singlehandedly carrying the Devils to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.The issue is that after Hall, the scoring stops, and the combination of Schneider and Kinkaid aren’t exactly a guarantee to be solid in net. It looks like Kinkaid will be the starting, and it’s safe to say he deserves it. Read more

Western Conference Playoff Preview: First Round Breakdown and Predictions

Strap yourself in, fill up that beer fridge, and welcome to the most wonderful time of the year.

Yes, my fellow hockey nutjobs, the NHL playoffs have finally arrived and this season has been the normal, totally predictable NHL. We have a first-year expansion team as the top seed in their division, a team that finished dead last a season ago in a wildcard spot, and a team that I affectionately refer to as “Taylor Hall and a bunch of other guys” back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. The Penguins are looking for the threepeat, the Predators are looking for sweet revenge, the Maple Leafs are looking to exorcise some demons, and the (new) Jets are looking for their first playoff victory.

I’ll be breaking down every series, matchups to watch, who I think will advance to round two, and other interesting storylines/tidbits for the Western Conference in the first round. Fellow Bench-Lifer Cameron Burgess is covering the East so be sure to watch out for his article as well. Let’s go!

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(C1) Nashville Predators [53-18-11] v. (WC2) Colorado Avalanche [43-30-9]

Season series: NSH 4-0-0; COL 0-3-1.

Breakdown: Last season the Predators found themselves in a position quite similar to where Colorado is right now. They were a heavy underdog against Chicago, yet promptly swept them and made a run all the way to the Cup Final. While I’m not suggesting the same events will transpire here, I will say that seeding is somewhat meaningless once the playoff puck drops. Regardless, the Preds are unquestionably one of the favourites to win it all and for good reason. Their roster is almost identical to a season ago plus Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Ryan Hartman, and perhaps Eeli Tolvanen. They are deep up front (13 players with 10 or more goals), loaded on the blueline, fully healthy aside from Calle Jarnkrok, and Pekka Rinne is in the midst of the best season of his NHL career. Oh, and they have arguably the biggest home-ice advantage in the NHL. Have fun beating that team.

The Avalanche even being in this position is truly remarkable. Just last year they had the worst season by any team since 1999-00 as they posted a miserable 22-56-4 record. Now, they find themselves as heavy underdogs in the first round but in the playoffs nonetheless. A large portion of this success can be attributed to Hart Trophy candidate Nathan Mackinnon. He was sensational this season with 39 goals and 58 assists and finally harnessed the game-breaking ability that made him the first overall pick in 2013. Super sophomore Mikko Rantanen (29G/55A) and team captain Gabriel Landeskog (25G/37A) round out a potent top line that carried the Avs’ offense on most nights. Unfortunately for Colorado’s upset hopes, starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top defenseman Erik Johnson were both injured just before the playoffs and neither will play in the first round. Jonathan Bernier will have to be huge in the crease for the Avs to keep up with the Preds.

X-factors:

Predators – While Ryan Johansen’s injury in the Western Conference Final was the biggest blow to the Preds cup run last season, they also lost a guy in the first round who looked like he was enjoying a playoff breakout. Kevin Fiala recovered from the fractured femur and carried his momentum into the regular season. Playing primarily in a top-six role, he set career highs with 23 goals and 25 assists. While Forsberg, Johansen, Subban, and Josi could be considered stars, the Preds are still a team that gets it done by committee. Fiala, who’s slated to play alongside Turris and Craig Smith, will be a massive part of the Preds’ secondary scoring. His playoff run was stolen from him last season but now he has another opportunity to impress.

Avalanche – Nathan Mackinnon will be the biggest reason why the Avs win any games but I am going to go a different route. The injury to Erik Johnson leaves a gaping hole on the blueline and Samuel Girard is the guy to fill it. The rookie was acquired from the Predators in the Turris/Duchene three-way deal and he has impressed Avs fans with his poise and smooth skating. He will have extra motivation playing against his former team and is in line to play upwards of 23+ minutes a night. He already stepped up in a big way in Colorado’s must win game against St. Louis to end the season as he was the best player on the ice. Again, the Avs are the biggest underdog in the first round but the playoffs are a different beast. Girard’s play will go a long way for the Avs if they want to make this a close series.

 

Prediction: Predators in 5.

Nashville just simply outmatches Colorado in every single aspect of the game. The forward core is deeper and more experienced, the blueline is an embarrassment of riches, and Pekka Rinne is a wall in net. If Varlamov and Johnson were healthy I could maybe stretch it to 6 games but I cannot envision a scenario where the Preds bow out this early. I do think Nathan Mackinnon is going to single-handedly will the Avs to a victory on home ice but that is about it. Preds roll.

(C2) Winnipeg Jets [52-20-10] v. (C3) Minnesota Wild [45-26-11]

Season series: WPG 3-1-0; MIN 1-3-0.

Breakdown: Both of these teams have been great since the calendar flipped to 2018. The Jets have ridden a balanced roster to one of the better records in the league. They have one of the strongest forward cores in the playoffs with stalwarts Schiefele (23G/37A), Wheeler (23G/68A), Laine (44G/26A), and Ehlers (29G/31A) leading the way. The trade deadline acquisition of Paul Stastny also worked out admirably as he recorded 13 points in his 19 games with the Jets. They have a stout defense which is evidenced by Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, and Tyler Myers all being on separate pairings. If that isn’t enough, perhaps the biggest key to the Jets success was in net. Connor Hellebuyck, who was projected to be Steve Mason’s backup at the start of the season, has turned in a Vezina-caliber campaign with a sparkling 44-11-9 record, a .924 SV%, and a 2.36 GAA.

The Wild were their typical consistent self as they made the playoffs for the sixth straight year. Eric Staal, who has enjoyed a career renaissance in the Twin Cities, was a force centering the top line as his 42 goals and 76 points paced the team. Jason Zucker benefitted greatly from Staal’s presence as he chipped in a surprising 33 goals. Mikael Granlund also enjoyed a solid year with 46 assists and 67 points. Defensively, Ryan Suter was the stamina superstar again averaging 26:46 TOI per game but he fractured his ankle right before the start of the playoffs leaving a massive hole on the blueline. Luckily for the Wild, Matt Dumba broke out in a big way this season averaging 23:46 TOI per game while chipping in 50 points. Between the pipes, Devan Dubnyk’s underlying numbers were not as good as years past but he still managed an impressive 35-16-7 record.

X-factors:

Jets – I purposely left rookie Kyle Connor out of the initial blurb because I think his performance is critical for the Jets in this series. He had 31 goals and 26 assists in his first full season of NHL action. He benefits from the opposition zeroing in on his linemates Schiefele and Wheeler when the unit is out on the ice. He is a battler and finds ways to get to open areas while the all-star duo commands all the attention. In what should be a tight-checking series, his opportunistic style of play will be massive for Winnipeg. Connor also has a knack for scoring big goals as he tallied 7 game winners (3 in OT) this season.

 

Wild – Although he battled injury for a quarter of the season Nino Niederreiter will need to improve on the disappointing year he has had thus far. 18 goals and 14 assists are simply not enough from a top-six winger for a team that can struggle to score at times. Luckily, the playoffs are a clean slate and El Nino will be playing on the top line with Zucker and Staal. That trio is key for the Wild in this series as their solid puck possession numbers will wear down the Winnipeg D and lead to offensive opportunities. The big Swiss winger has a necessary net-front presence and a heavy shot. He was the best 5-on-5 Corsi player (52.94%) for the Wild by a wide margin which suggests he is playing good hockey, just not converting his chances.

Prediction: Jets in 6.

If Ryan Suter was healthy this series would be a complete toss-up in my book but losing a guy that plays almost half the game each night is too big of a hole. I love Matt Dumba but I am not very confident in a Nick Seeler/Nate Prosser pairing against one of the best offensive teams in the league. Winnipeg was second in goals for league-wide while also being fifth stingiest in goals against. The Jets power play is also one of the biggest advantages in the series as they scored on 23.4% of their opportunities (5th in the league) while the Wild scored on just 20.4% (18th in the league). Not only will the new Winnipeg Jets get their first ever playoff win, they’ll also be getting their first ever series win.

(P1) Las Vegas Golden Knights [51-24-7] v. (WC1) Los Angeles Kings [45-29-8]

Season series: VGK 2-1-1; LAK 2-1-1.

Breakdown: Well, I have to say I definitely did not imagine we would see the Golden Knights playoff debut in their inaugural season but here we are. The Knights rode a fairytale roster to the top seed in the Pacific and looked like one of the best squads in the league for most of the year. Vegas was led by Columbus castoff William Karlsson (43G/35A), Panther pariah’s Marchessault (27G/48A) and Smith (22G/38A), and parted Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury (29-13-4/.927SV%/2.24GAA). Even when there were injuries to three of their starting goalies the Knights did not slow down. They seemed to get contributions from a different part of their lineup every single game as they had six players with 20+ goals. Head coach Gerard Gallant deserves a boatload of credit for what he has done with this team. They can skate, they can score, and they can come at you in waves.

The Kings style of play is contrarian to that of the Knights. While Vegas has a speed and offense approach, the Kings are playing that old-fashioned barricading defense. They were the stingiest team in the league only allowing 2.46 goals per game and they also had the best penalty kill at 85% effectiveness. Jonathan Quick has been here before and knows what it takes to win in the postseason. He did not have a great year which is evident by his 33-28-3 record but that can quickly be forgotten during a sublime playoff run. Offensively, Anze Kopitar had a herculean season setting career highs in goals (35), assists (57), and points (92). The Slovenian will be in the running for league MVP as well the Selke for best defensive forward. Furthermore, Dustin Brown (28G/33A/61P) enjoyed a bounce-back year with his highest totals since 2010-11 and Jeff Carter, who only managed 27 games this season, is back and healthy for the playoffs.

X-factors:

Golden Knights – Tomas Tatar was George McPhee’s big splash at the trade deadline and the review is not good so far. The Knights paid a hefty price for the Slovakian winger who has only managed 6 points in 20 games wearing the gold, black and white. Tatar is deft and creative with the puck which should fit in perfectly with the high-octane offense but he cannot seem to find his footing. The Kings do not make it easy on opposing teams and goals will be hard to come by. The Knights need the veteran Tatar to show up and help lead the attack.

Kings – Adrian Kempe (16G/21A/37P) was one of the hottest Kings at the start of the season but has bottomed out as the year dragged on. Perhaps the grueling grind of an NHL season has taken a toll on the young Swede as he has not scored a goal in 28 games. With Carter back in the fold, Kempe has moved down to the third line which should offer more favourable matchups. If the Kings are going to keep up with the scoring prowess of the Knights they need Kempe to find the offensive fire that saw him snag 9 points in his first 10 games of the year.

Prediction: Kings in 7.

It is the classic battle of offense meets defense and although I think T-Mobile Arena will be a formidable place to play I have to take the defense in what looks to be a very close series. I think that over the course of seven games L.A head coach John Stevens will be able to effectively deploy his defense in a way that mitigates the Vegas attack. Kopitar and Drew Doughty are big game players and although the Knights have enjoyed productivity all season long the playoffs are a different beast. The series may just come down to the battle between Fleury and Quick. Strap yourselves in for a mean, hardfought war.

(P2) Anaheim Ducks [44-25-13] v. (P3) San Jose Sharks [45-27-10]

Season series: ANA 1-1-2; SJS 3-0-1.

Breakdown: California cities and Pacific Division rivals collide in this evenly matched tilt. The Ducks are scorching hot right now ending the season on a 10-1-1 run. They lost 317 man games due to injury throughout the year including extended stints on the shelf for key contributors Kesler, Getzlaf, Perry, and Lindholm. They are relatively healthy now aside from Cam Fowler (who is expected to miss the first round) but the top two D pairings of Lindholm-Manson, and Beauchemin-Montour are set. The biggest advantage for Anaheim in this series is John Gibson, who vaulted into the best goalie in the league discussion with his phenomenal play this season. Gibson made 37 of 39 saves in a 3-2 win against the Blues in November with THIS TEAM playing in front of him:

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If that isn’t enough to convince you about Gibson, nothing is. Regardless, since the all-star break Gibson leads the league in SV% (.937) and GAA (1.95). Offensively the Ducks should be fine with Getzlaf (11G/50A/56GP) and Kesler now back and healthy. Adam Henrique was acquired earlier in the season from the Devils and scored 20 of his 24 goals with the Ducks.

Moving onto NorCal, the Sharks are on the hunt for another playoff run after last year’s early exit against Edmonton. The usual suspects were the top producers for San Jose as Burns (12G/55A), Pavelski (22G/44A), and Couture (34G/27A) were 1-2-3 in team scoring. The Sharks are also dealing with an injury issue themselves as Joe Thornton is likely to miss Game 1 of the series due to the knee ailment that has cost him 35 games this season. Evander Kane was a big addition for the Sharks at the deadline and he has been solid so far with 9 goals and 14 points in 17 games. The team depth was exposed last season but they’ve received important contributions from players like Timo Meier, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc, and Tomas Hertl this year. The top two pairings of Burns-Martin, Braun-Vlasic are dependable and log heavy minutes. Martin Jones won 30 games for the third straight season but he struggled for stretches this campaign.

X-factors:

Ducks – While some of the Ducks biggest point producers were mentioned in the opening paragraph it is the unheralded 22-year-old out of the Czech Republic who will be key in this opening series. Ondrej Kase recorded the first 20 goal season of his young career and will be a key source of secondary scoring on the third line for Anaheim. He has disgusting hands and quick feet which makes him more than capable of scoring a highlight reel goal at a crucial juncture of the game.

Sharks – The most criminally underrated defensive defenseman in the league is my x-factor for the Sharks. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a rock in his own zone and will be key to stymying the Anaheim offense. He logs heavy minutes on the penalty kill and against the top performers of the opposition. Both of these teams have talented forwards and are capable of scoring in bunches so defensive capability will be everything.

Prediction: Ducks in 6.

It is all John Gibson for me. I think he is one of the most talented goalies in the world and he looks on track to play in Game 1. Cam Fowler is a third pairing d-man on the Ducks and although they would like to have him on the power play I do not think his absence is as big of a loss as some people are saying. I like the Ducks offensive options a little bit more than San Jose. Realistically though, this is a very even series and one of the biggest differences could be what penalty kill performs best. The Sharks had the second most effective unit in the league (84.8%) while Anaheim had the fifth (83.2%). Special teams play a huge role in a playoff series and that could be a determing factor.

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