NBC’s Doc Emrick gives his thoughts on the intrigue of this year’s All-Star Weekend

2 Comments

NHL on NBC’s lead play-by-play man Mike “Doc” Emrick will be on the mic for the NHL SuperSkills Saturday night and All-Star Game Sunday afternoon for Versus and if you asked him, the way the team draft plays out on Friday night for the NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft at 8 p.m. the real drama kicks the weekend off right.

“It used to be that the first day of All-Star Weekend was a travel day. Now with the draft on Friday it’s arguably the most looked forward to part of it all. During our Winter Classic broadcast, Pierre McGuire, Mike Milbury, and Darren Pang had a sort of mock trial about all this and Mike asked, ‘Do you pick your friends or do you pick the guys you figure will make the best team?’ It’s a great question and it’s a great concept.You know, it makes it so fun especially when it comes down to who ends up getting picked last.”

Emrick is one of the biggest appreciators of the game around and it’s something that you can tell in how he calls a game on the air. While being a professional at what he does at calling the games he finds it’s hard to not be a fan with how the selection process will break down especially with so many possible story lines to go through that may come up suddenly on Friday night, especially with the Staal boys. With the fantasy draft on Friday night, he’s now got an event he’s looking forward to more than an old stand by.

“I always liked seeing Zdeno Chara taking the hardest shot and whether or not he could break his mark from the previous year. But now our thoughts don’t turn to that as much as it does to who’s is going to choose whom and at what point and what statement is being made by that. All this speculation about that, it helps make this meet up that much more fun.”

It’s hard not to be caught in thinking about how the Fantasy Draft will turn out on Friday night. After all, we don’t even have teams and rosters to break down and compare to one another. All we’ve got for now is that Eric Staal has Washington’s Mike Green and Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler as his assistants while Nick Lidstrom has Martin St. Louis and Patrick Kane helping him out. Everything else is up in the air now especially with Sidney Crosby and Ales Hemsky out of the game with injuries.

With all the attention being on these guys for how things will play out on Friday night, some are wondering whether or not it’ll make for good television. Emrick says that rather than hamming it up as showmen, Staal and Lidstrom would be better served to do things the same way they always have.

“I don’t know whether they’re going to turn into showbiz guys. To tell you the honest truth, I’d be a little disappointed if they did because that’s not the personality of either one. They’re decisive guys. If they’re going to end up showboating or anything like that, that would be a bit that’s out of character for them,” Emrick says.

“If they’re going to have fun with it though, that’s great. Their idea of fun might be different than that of somebody who’s in the entertainment business. The good news is they’re going to be making some great hockey. I’m going to be a fan of the whole thing too.”

Often times folks look at the All-Star Game with a bit of a cynical view and while that’s understandable in some cases, it’s also a stress-free way to show off the game and with how things will set up for Sunday via Friday night’s draft you have to be a pretty hardened character to not look at this whole thing with a sense of wonderment and curiosity.

If you’ve ever played a video game or fantasy hockey (or fantasy sports of any kind) you always wondered how the team you’ve picked would shake out. It’s just one game, but if heard it from Doc Emrick, you’d start to see that maybe looking at things so cut and dried is maybe missing the point of it all.

“The players don’t think much about the business side of things when they’re out on the ice. Once that puck drops, they’re going to be doing the absolute best they can with the skill sets they have and probably have a lot of smiles on their faces because they know it doesn’t cost them anything in the standings,” Emrick says.

“That’s the reason the video you see from all-star games shows players laughing. This is not the serious business of moving up in the standings this is just having a little fun on the weekend and let’s see what happens.”

Maple Leafs hope playing ‘desperate’ hockey aids them again vs. Bruins

AP Images
Leave a comment

Mike Babcock loves himself some clam chowder, so going back to Boston for Game 7 against the Bruins Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) means he has that option again for a pre-game meal.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have put themselves in this situation with two straight wins after being down 3-1 in their opening round series with the Bruins. The talk about the collapse from five years ago, and the fall-out from that, is in the past, as both teams face a win-or-go-home night ahead.

“There’s no more bullets left in the chamber. This is it,” said Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk. “This is your last shot to move on or go home. Obviously, even that much more, the desperation gets amplified.”

TD Garden will be loud and energy-filled and emotions will be high with the stakes being what they are. The Maple Leafs played a much smarter game in Game 6, taking only two penalties compared to the six power plays they gave the Bruins in Game 5. Boston’s power play is second in the NHL this postseason (31.6 percent), and any time Toronto allows the Bruins to play with a man advantage is time that’s taking away from their stars being able to create scoring opportunities at even strength.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The approach will be the same refrain you hear from head coaches in these situations: keep it simple. No major adjustments, no overhauling of a game plan for a new 60-minute battle — just worry about puck possession and do your job.

How much does scoring first help? Historically, the team that scores first has won 75 percent of the time (126-43) in Game 7s. That’s all built into Babcock’s plan, as well as the message to his team about not being afraid of what’s in front of them.

“I think the other thing you’ve got to do, and I’ve talked quite a bit about this, there’s only certain moments in your life that turn into memories,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “This is one of them right here tonight. Make it a great memory. We have an opportunity here today to enjoy ourselves, to embrace the situation, to play well, to play hard. We’re capable. Let’s do that.”

This will be the third straight elimination game for Toronto, and the mindset of knowing it could be the last game of your season has so far been enough to result in efforts that has led to victories.

“That’s the positive. I think being down 3-1 we’ve played desperate hockey, we know what that feels like, we know how to start games,” said Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri. “This feeling really isn’t anything new for us over the course of the last few games. They got off to an early lead and we had to step it up. Now it’s really up for grabs.”

Related: NHL announces second round opening games

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Game 7 is career-defining moment for Tuukka Rask

Getty Images
9 Comments

One of my favorite NHL things to watch from a distance right now is the way the city of Boston collectively eats itself alive arguing about whether or not Tuukka Rask is a good big game goalie, or a good goalie, or a bad goalie, or a bad big game goalie, or just some kind of a goalie.

Just doing a quick browse around the city’s sports hub to get a vibe for what the mindset is heading into Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live streamand you see him described as “divisive.” You see references to his poor (and to be fair, they are not great) numbers when the Bruins are facing elimination on home ice. And it even goes back before this game, like when he “again” left “a lot to be desired in a big game in Tampa.”

All of this matters, of course, because Rask hasn’t yet won a championship, and if a player hasn’t yet won a championship all of their postseason and big game shortcomings get magnified because, you know, they just can’t get it done when it matters, or something. Win one or two and nobody ever forgets it no matter how little you do after it.

You also had Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards taking the other side and calling out the Rask critics for not going to games and needing somebody to throw under the bus in a city that has had an embarrassment of riches in recent years when it comes to winning.

All of this makes Game 7 on Wednesday one of the defining moments of Rask’s career.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

At least until the next big game that will be the next defining moment of his career, with the result from that game — no matter what it is — making us forget about the result from this defining moment — no matter what it is.

If he wins, he came through in the clutch with a big game and rewrites the narrative of his career. At least temporarily.

If he loses, it is just another game where Rask came up small.

As an uninterested third party observer, it is all tremendous theatre, especially when you consider the reality that over the past 10 years Rask has been one of the best and most productive goalies in the NHL.

A goalie that probably 25 or 26 general managers and coaches in the NHL would have sold their souls to get.

That production is not just limited to regular season success, either. Among goalies with at least 50 playoff games played, Rask has the third-best postseason save percentage in NHL history.

That is worth something.

Every playoff game is a big game. And while the critics are not necessarily wrong to point out his record and struggles in games (the numbers are what they are,  you can not hide from them), there is also something to be said for the fact he has only had to play in six games in his career where the Bruins were even facing elimination. They’ve won five series in his career where they never once had to face elimination, including two on their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.

Comebacks make for compelling viewing and high drama, but there’s a lot to be said for blowing a team away early and not needing to rely on a comeback.

In one of those postseason series wins — a Conference Final, no less — he allowed just two goals in a four-game sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Are those not big games, too? Of course they are. Did he not come through for the Bruins against a team that had lit up the rest of the Eastern Conference before running into him and the Bruins? Of course he did. But because he and the Bruins lost to a buzzsaw of mini-dynasty in the Cup Final it gets forgotten (as does the fact he had a .931 save percentage it that series — maybe the guys in front of him should have scored more than a combined three goals in Games 5 and 6).

But this isn’t necessarily about just Tuukka Rask.

This is about the way we watch and analyze sports. We selectively pick and choose what is important based on what our preconceived ideas of a player or team are. We also observe these things from a bubble that is limited to what is happening in our immediate area. And that’s where Edwards kind of touched on something important when he remarked about Boston’s “embarrassment of riches” in recent years and needing to find something to be controversial.

Cities whose teams win a lot of championships — Boston and Pittsburgh come to mind here immediately — lose all perspective for how rare championships actually are. And they get greedy. They get spoiled. They get an unquenchable thirst for more and a belief that they deserve that next championship more than the other city because they’ve experienced it and winning is what they do. When the local teams inevitably fall short — and they always do eventually — somebody has to be the fall guy. Somebody has to take the blame for the missed opportunity. The city needs its pound of flesh to make itself feel better for losing.

Sometimes that pound of flesh comes from the best player for not scoring in the big game that the team happened to lose. Other times it is the goalie. But we always come for it.

Has Rask struggled in games where the Bruins are facing elimination? The numbers are what they are. But here’s the thing we lose sight of: Most goalies end up with poor records in elimination games because most teams end their season with a loss. Only one team ends its postseason with a win. This is true in every sport. There are 123 professional sports teams in the four major North American men’s sports leagues. Do you know how many of them have won a championship — just one — over the past 15 years? Only 37 of them. Roughly 30 percent. That means over the past 15 years 70 percent of the sports watching population has had their season end with bitter disappointment.

Championships are rare. Extremely rare. They are extraordinarily hard to win and there is never any one particular thing or player that is responsible for why a team won or lost one. More often than not your team is going to lose the next big game. That is just the nature of the beast that is professional sports.

So, back to Rask and Wednesday’s Game 7 against Boston.

What’s going to happen? No idea. He might play great and win. He might play so-s0 and lose. He might get pulled in the first period. He might play really well and lose to a goalie that just so happens to be a little bit better at the other end of the ice (which is exactly what happened in Game 6 in Toronto).

No matter what happens Rask is going to be the same goalie — one of the best in the league over the past decade — that he was coming into the game. We’ll just use this one game to largely define him and his career.

Until the next one.

Related: NHL announces second round opening games

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins will be without Malkin, Hagelin for Game 1 vs. Capitals

Getty
16 Comments

When the Pittsburgh Penguins open their second-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night (NBCSN, 7 p.m. ET) they will be doing so without two of their top forwards.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced on Wednesday that even though both players skated on their own before practice, neither player will be available for the series opener. It is possible that Malkin will be ready for Game 2, but Hagelin will not even travel with the team to Washington.

Malkin was injured in Game 5 of the Penguins’ opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers when he was involved in a collision with Jakub Voracek. He returned to the game but did not play in the team’s Game 6 series-clinching win.

It was in that game that Hagelin was injured when he was hit by Flyers forward Claude Giroux.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with the two injuries the Penguins were still able to score six goals over the final 25 minutes of regulation, including four from Jake Guentzel, to leave Philadelphia with an 8-5 win, winning the series in six games.

Still, this is not a great way for the Penguins to be starting the second round against a better team. One of the big advantages the Penguins have had over the Capitals in the past two years has been their depth as the second-and third-lines did a lot of the damage in each series. Without Malkin and Hagelin, even if it is just for one or two games, they lose a lot of that advantage.

In Malkin’s absence on Sunday the Penguins elevated Riley Sheahan to the second line so they could keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together. That line has been excellent for them since it was put together.

Based on their practice lines from Wednesday that seems to be the way the Penguins will be approaching Game 1 as Sheahan and Dominik Simon skated on the second line next to Phil Kessel, while the Brassard-Rust-Sheary line remained together. Sidney Crosby will continue to center the top line between Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist, while Zach Aston-Reese, Carter Rowney, and Tom Kuhnhackl made up the fourth line.

Related: NHL announces second round opening games

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Heinen over Wingels right choice for Bruins in Game 7

Getty
9 Comments

The Boston Bruins will make one change to their lineup heading into Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.

Danton Heinen, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6, will be back in the lineup, while Tommy Wingels, who’s played in three of the six games during the series, will watch from the press box again on Wednesday. On paper, this doesn’t seem to be a significant change, but head coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t just making changes for the sake of making changes.

Neither player has made an offensive impact in the series. Wingels has no points and a plus-1 rating in three games, while Heinen has no points and a minus-1 rating in five contests. Even though neither player has popped up on the scoresheet, there’s a significant gap when it comes to their advanced stats. Heinen has a CF% of 49.49, which doesn’t jump off the page, but when you compare it to Wingels’ CF% (39.34), you realize that there’s a significant difference. To further point the arrow in Heinen’s direction, the 22-year-old has zone starts in the offensive zone just 37.5 percent of the time compared to 47.62 percent for Wingels.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

So, in terms of offense, neither player has really contributed, but it appears to be pretty clear that the odds are on Heinen’s side when it comes to the way they’ve played this postseason.

If we take a look at the standard numbers during the regular season, it’s obvious that Heinen was the more productive player. The rookie had 16 goals and 47 points in 77 games, which is far from terrible for his first year in the NHL. Wingels, 30, had nine goals and 18 points in 75 games with the ‘Hawks and Bruins.

Getting an extra night off during the series could help Heinen find his game. And based on his comments after Tuesday’s practice, it sounds like the coaching staff made their instructions clear. Heinen mentioned that he needs to be more assertive, stronger on the puck and he needs to win puck battles so that he can have the puck on his stick a little more often.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.