‘Hawks or Heat: Who ya got? A PHT-PBT original

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As you may have heard, the Chicago Blackhawks are on quite a roll.

As you also may have heard, so too are the Miami Heat.

You may also have heard some national pundits yelling at clouds discussing which streak is more impressive — Chicago going 23 games without a regulation loss, or Miami winning 15 in a row.

In the spirit of healthy debate (as opposed to loud noises), ProBasketballTalk’s lead writer, Kurt Helin, reached out to PHT’s Jason Brough for a pleasant email exchange.

To: Jason Brough, ProHockeyTalk
From: Kurt Helin, ProBasketballTalk

We have been brought here to discuss what seems to be the sports bar debate of the week — at least in some mythical sports bar where the NHL and NBA demographics overlap — and that is the Miami Heat streak of 15 straight wins vs. the Chicago Blackhawks streak of 23 games in a row earning a point.

The challenge is, this isn’t even comparing apples and oranges. It’s more like comparing apples and barbecue brisket. But because of my giving nature, I’m willing to concede one point from the start — the Blackhawks streak is already historic to its sport in a way the Heat streak is not yet. I think it’s just hard for some basketball (and maybe general sports fans) to get their arms around what the Blackhawks streak means, really.

So, what does it mean?

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

Oh, so that’s how you’re going to play this. Like a respectable human being. I was thinking we were going to argue LIKE THIS and belittle one team’s remarkable accomplishment, because that’s what sports in the modern age is all about. Think of the page views! And the vitriol in the comments section! Oh, the vitriol.

But I guess if you want to be boring, I’ll just answer your question politely.

Of all the remarkable things about the Blackhawks’ streak, perhaps the most remarkable is this: It’s really, really hard to build a dominant team in the NHL, where unlike the NBA with its luxury-tax system, there’s a hard salary cap. Chicago’s cap payroll is about $67 million. The lowest cap payroll in the NHL belongs to Phoenix, at about $50 million. And let’s not forget the best hockey player can, at best, play half the game. Nobody sits on the bench all game, except the backup goalie. Oh, and by the way, the ‘Hawks’ backup goalie has been great this season.

Have the Heat been getting unexpected contributions, or has it mostly been LeBron?

From: Helin, PBT
To: Brough, PHT

Oh, I’m not going to stay respectable — WE ARE GOING TO ARGUE! I expect we will degenerate into a dozens battle soon.

First though, it’s not just been LeBron James, although he remains the best basketball player walking the planet and that’s a good guy to have on your team. LeBron’s playing at a Jordanesque level right now and while that pisses off people who hate LeBron/want to defend Michael Jordan (as if he actually needs defending) it’s just a fact.

But like I said it’s not just LeBron, Dwyane Wade has been great during the streak. In his last five games Wade has been averaging 27.4 points a game on 59 percent shooting. Chris Bosh has had good games. They are defending. It’s a team thing, just with LeBron as the head of the snake.

Here’s where I see the streaks as different — the ‘Hawks streak is meaningless come the playoffs. Last season the eight-seed Kings won the Stanley Cup and got to take it around Manhattan Beach all summer. Playoff hockey and regular season hockey seem largely unrelated, and while Bill James and his stats friends embrace the randomness it means that this streak is dead come the playoffs.

It’s seeding and nothing more. In the NBA, only one team outside a top three seed has won a title since going to this playoff format (and that Rockets team traded for Clyde Drexler midseason). What the Heat are doing will carry over to the games that matter. What the ‘Hawks are doing becomes irrelevant.

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong.

source:

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

You’re wrong. Not insanely wrong, but wrong nonetheless.

It still helps to have home-ice advantage in the playoffs. And in a league like the NHL, where parity reigns, any advantage is worth having. Have you seen the atmosphere at the United Center for ‘Hawks games? Let’s just say, it doesn’t have the same sad, Derrick Rose-less feel as when the Bulls play. Chicago will take as many home games as it can get.

As for the Kings, they were far from a typical No. 8 seed. They badly underachieved during the regular season given the players on their roster. (Sort of like another Los Angeles team you may be familiar with, though I’m not sure that one can win a title.) Plus, the Kings got Jeff Carter in a late-season trade. Not sure he had the same impact as Clyde with the Rockets, but he did score eight times in the playoffs, tied with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar for the team lead.

That said, I will give you this: the Blackhawks are beatable. Are the Heat?

From: Helin, PBT
To: Brough, PHT

If you keep insulting basketball I’m going to bring up how foolish the NHL looked during its lockout. That was embarrassing. The NBA would never… oh, wait. Nevermind.

I heard an interesting thing All-Star weekend from a person with another team, who said the Spurs actually are the team best suited to beat the Heat. San Antonio has veterans who have won, they move the ball very well and move off the ball (which is how to attack the Miami pressure), they have size to score inside, and they have role guys who buy the system. It makes sense. Except I don’t see the Spurs getting past the Thunder (they couldn’t last year and the Thunder are improved). So while no team “can’t be beat” it’s hard to see how anyone beats the Heat if they are focused. And the reason they have won 15 in a row is they are focused.

Speaking of the lockout, I’m curious — how are guys holding up physically? The reduced recovery time of a condensed schedule wore down NBA players and, while the NBA is a physical league (just ask Blake Griffin), the NBA doesn’t allow checking and full contact.

(Unless it’s from J.J. Barea, then it’s just cute.)

source:

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

How are guys holding up? The answer is, not well.

Granted, how much all the injuries we’re seeing in hockey has to do with the lockout is tough to say. But I feel like I’ve written the word “groin” more than usual this season. And not in the “Serge Ibaka slapped one” way.

In fact, if the Blackhawks are going to be stopped, injuries may be what does it. So far, they’ve been pretty lucky in the health department. Dave Bolland and Corey Crawford have missed some time, but that’s nothing compared to what teams like the Flyers, Red Wings, Senators, Blues, and others have experienced. Fingers are always crossed in the NHL, especially when you have key players with concussion histories, as the ‘Hawks do with Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook.

But for now, everything’s going swimmingly. The Blackhawks host struggling Colorado tonight and get the Avs again Friday night in Denver. Then it’s Edmonton and Columbus, two more bad teams. Which is to say, this streak could go on for a while longer.

Jinx!

From: Helin, PBT
To: Brough, PHT

Frankly, we’ve all been typing “groin” too much this season.

So to sum up, you admit that the Heat streak is better than the Blackhawks’, and that hockey is the sport for people who can’t understand the subtleties of NASCAR. At least that’s what I got out of it.

Maybe you saw it differently.

From: Brough, PHT
To: Helin, PBT

Basketball sucks.

Sean Couturier returned and helped save the Flyers’ season

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PITTSBURGH — After four straight blowouts to open their first-round series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally played a close game on Friday night. Thanks to a goalie switch that saw Michal Neuvirth replace Brian Elliott, and a couple of smaller lineup changes, as well as the return of one of their best players — Sean Couturier — the Flyers were able to keep their season alive with a 4-2 win to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Couturier missed Game 4 due to a lower-body injury, but was able to return to the lineup on Friday to play the role of hero, scoring the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in the third period.

The goal came after the Penguins were sloppy with the puck in their own zone and failed to clear on two different occasions, allowing the puck to come to a wide open Couturier at the blue line. From there, he fired a long-distance shot that deflected off of Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin and into the back of the net.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Given that he was limited to just 16:55 of ice-time and did not play on the power play at all, it was pretty clear that he was not anywhere close to 100 percent. Just consider that during the regular season he averaged more than 21 minutes per game and was playing more than 24 minutes in the first three games of the series. He refused to say after the game how he was feeling (he was twice asked to put a percentage on it and refused both times) but it was obviously enough to make an impact in what was to this point the biggest game of the Flyers’ season.

“I was just trying to take it one shift at a time, win your one-on-one battles, keep it simple,” Couturier said when asked what his mindset was. “Don’t want to overdo things or overthink the game. That was kind of the mentality I had, just keep it simple, keep my shifts short, make sure I was ready to go and fresh for the next shift.”

While his game-winning goal will be the moment that everybody remembers until puck drop on Sunday, it was his play on the penalty kill — and the Flyers’ penalty kill as a whole — that was probably the difference in the game.

Heading into this series the special teams matchup was going to be an important one to watch because the Penguins had the NHL’s best power play during the regular season. The Flyers, conversley, had one of the league’s worst penalty kills. Throughout the first four games when the Penguins power play clicked — and when the Flyers gave them ample opportunity to allow it to click — the Penguins won decisively.

On Friday, it most definitely did not click. And just as was the case in Game 2, the Flyers were able to win based on the strength of that penalty kill.

More than 40 percent of Couturier’s ice-time on Friday night came with the Flyers shorthanded. During that time he helped the Flyers not only go a perfect 5-for-5, but also score a shorthanded goal and completely shut down the Penguins’ power play, limiting the unit to just four shots on goal. At one point in the second period the Penguins had a 4-on-3 power play for more than a minute-and-a-half and not only failed to score, they failed to get a shot on goal and only attempted one (it was blocked, naturally, by Couturier). Couturier was the lone Flyer forward on the ice for almost the entire situation.

“We did a good job, but they had a lot of chances,” said Couturier of the Flyers’ PK. “[Neuvirth] bailed us out a few times, and we have to be more disciplined. That is too many penalties. We put ourselves in trouble because they can take over the game when they go on the power play. It’s tough to gain momentum. Tonight we fought hard, found a way to win.”

From almost the minute he arrived in the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season Couturier has been one of the league’s top defensive forwards, even if he wasn’t always recognized for it in awards voting. Even though it is a defensive award, it still almost always goes to a player that also has huge offensive numbers. After getting elevated to the team’s top-line this season and playing alongside Claude Giroux, he went on to have a breakout year offensively that saw him shatter all of his previous career highs, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points. On Wednesday, it was announced that he is, for the first time, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

“Him being in the lineup gives a boost to everybody just because of what he means to our hockey team,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “At the end of the day it comes down to going out and doing the job. He did that. Obviously he played a few less minutes tonight than he normally does, but I thought he did a heck of a job, especially on the PK, where was a huge factor for us. His play down the stretch was great, not just on the game-winning goal.”

It was not just Couturier’s return to the lineup that made an impact for the Flyers on Friday.

Hakstol also made a number of lineup changes (Dale Weise and Robert Hagg in; Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom out) including the decision to go with Neuvirth in net after he had played just 59 minutes of hockey over the past three months.

It turned out to be a huge call.

After getting horrendous goaltending in three of the first four games, Neuvirth stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced on Friday. The two goals he did allow were not great (a bad wraparound goal to Bryan Rust; a shot through the five-hole by Jake Guentzel off the rush) but he did end up making the save of the night in the final minute of regulation, just moments after Couturier’s goal to give the Flyers the lead, when he robbed Sidney Crosby on the doorstep.

With that, a series that has been defined by blowouts and lopsided scores is now a little more interesting as the Flyers return home and look to push it to a seventh game.

If they get goaltending and penalty kill work like they did on Friday, they will.

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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.

Jets chase Dubnyk, eliminate Wild in Game 5

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Friday’s Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets was do-or-die for the Minnesota Wild. It turned out someone may have forgotten to tell the Wild.

Despite not having Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov, Toby Enstrom, Mathieu Perreault and Nikolaj Ehlers in Game 5, the Jets roared out to a 4-0 start through 20 minutes, chasing Devan Dubnyk, en route to a 5-0 win to advance to the second round.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Dubnyk lasted just 11:59, as he allowed four goals on 10 shots and was replaced by Alex Stalock.

Jacob Trouba started the party in Winnipeg scoring just 31 seconds into the game:

Bryan Little, Brandon Tanev and Joel Armia also found the back of the net for the Jets. Mark Scheifele added a power-play tally early in the third frame to extend their lead to 5-0.

The Wild were better in the second period, but they still couldn’t figure out Connor Hellebuyck, who ended up making 30 saves for his second straight shutout.

This is the third year in a row that Minnesota has been bounced in the opening round. In 2016, they were eliminated in six games by the Dallas Stars and last year they watched St. Louis take them down in five.

Even though they finished the year with over a 100 points, it’s another disappointing end for Bruce Boudreau’s squad. It’s tough to envision them making major changes to the roster because Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are under contract for six more years. It’ll be interesting to see what they can do to shake up this roster or their staff. General manager Chuck Fletcher has some work to do this summer.

As for the Jets, they move on to face the winner of the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche series. Winnipeg definitely looked explosive in Game 5, and they’ll need to keep rolling if they want to reach the Western Conference Final.

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.

Michal Neuvirth gets Game 5 start for Flyers; Couturier returns to lineup

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With their season on the line on Friday night the Philadelphia Flyers are making a change in goal.

Michal Neuvirth, who has played just 59 minutes of NHL hockey since Feb. 18, will get the Game 5 start in goal when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Philadelphia’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday night after Elliott gave up three goals on 17 shots, the second time he was benched in the first four games. The Flyers have already used three goalies in this series with Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek all getting playing time. None of them have played well.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When healthy Neuvirth had the best numbers out of the group during the regular season, but health has been a constant battle for him the past few years.

The other big lineup news for the Flyers on Friday will be the fact that center Sean Couturier will be returning after sitting out Game 4 with a lower body injury. He may not be 100 percent, however, given that he took pregame line rushes on the team’s third line between Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds. Valtteri Filppula was skating on the first line alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

Among the other changes for the Flyers: Robert Hagg will replace Travis Sanheim on defense, while Dale Weise will play on the fourth-line instead of Oskar Lindblom.

Related: Penguins will not have Patric Hornqvist in Game 5

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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.

Barkov, Karlsson, O’Reilly are 2018 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres have been named as the three finalists for the 2018 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the NHL announced on Friday. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

The winner will be announced during the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on June 20.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers center certainly has the “high standard of playing ability” part down with a season that saw him lead the team with 78 points and finish tied for third in goals with 27. Barkov played the fifth-most minutes (1,743:32) among NHL forwards and only picked up seven minor penalties. This is the second time he’s been named a finalist in the last three seasons.

The Case for William Karlsson: Karlsson had a monster of a season with 43 goals and 78 points during the Golden Knights’ historic first year. In playing 1,534:47, the 25-year-old forward racked up only 12 PIMs. Should Karlsson win, he would become the first player to win an end-of-season trophy for a team in its inaugural season since Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers won the Byng and Hart Trophy and in 1979-80.

The Case for Ryan O'Reilly: O’Reilly missed one game this season and logged 1,686:10 of ice time for the Sabres. He recorded only one penalty all season, way back on Oct. 24 versus Detroit, a slashing call. His one penalty is the fewest among NHL players who suited up for at least 41 games this season. He’s a previous winner having taken home the trophy in 2014 while a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Bill Masterton Trophy (Saturday)
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.