Getty

The Panthers need to ignore the noise and just start winning

7 Comments

Whatever’s happening behind the scenes of the Florida Panthers — and there are varying accounts, to be sure — the only real solution for this team is to start winning some hockey games.

Keep losing and the criticism will continue, whether it’s fair or not. The Panthers do things their own way, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But when a team that hasn’t won a playoff series in a couple of decades starts talking about winning “multiple Stanley Cups,” there are bound to be people who hope that team fails.

This is also what happens when a team that used to be ignored starts getting more league-wide attention. The Panthers are doing some interesting things. They are going out on a limb with analytics, and more and more people are watching to see how they fare. Some want them to succeed. But again, others want them to fall flat on their faces.

When the Panthers fired Gerard Gallant, it became “a PR nightmare” after photos emerged showing the ex-coach taking a taxi in Carolina. A few days later, Gallant said things were “getting blown out of proportion,” but by then, the damage had been done. That the team has continued to lose under interim coach Tom Rowe has only brightened the spotlight.

Read more: A ‘philosophical divide’ led to Gallant firing

Then came yesterday’s report that Dale Tallon was back in charge of hockey ops. The Panthers fired back, saying he’s never not been in charge.

That, in turn, led to Bob McKenzie’s radio rant today, during which the widely respected TSN/NBC insider said, “Technically, nothing has changed in Florida. Everybody’s got the same title. They’re going out of their way now to say nothing has happened. I will tell you what happened. After the game the other night, where they lost, and lost badly, and Roberto Luongo smashed his stick on the boards and threw a tantrum as he went off the ice, and Tom Rowe threw a tantrum on the bench, and that put them to 2-3-3, seven points out of a possible 16 since they fired head coach Gerard Gallant, we do know that the owner, Vinnie Viola, met with Dale Tallon the next morning and immediately following that, there was certainly word out in the NHL community that, whatever role Dale had before, that there may have been some added responsibility.”

For the players, it’s all a bunch of unwelcome noise. They’ve got enough on their plates, what with being five points back of a playoff spot. The way the top five teams in the Metropolitan are rolling, it looks like only three Atlantic teams are going to make the postseason. Montreal’s already got a nice cushion, which could leave only two spots for Ottawa, Boston, Tampa Bay, Florida, Detroit, Toronto, and Buffalo to grab. So whatever happens, there are going to be some very noteworthy teams that miss the playoffs this year.

Looking ahead, the Panthers play tonight in Winnipeg against a Jets team that should be rested and ready to go. Tomorrow they’re in Colorado, where the Avalanche continue to flounder. After that, Florida returns home for five huge divisional games with Buffalo, Boston, Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal.

When all’s said and done, these next seven games could very well determine whether the Panthers make or miss the playoffs. And we can only imagine the fallout if they miss.

Game 7, and the next career-defining moment for Tuukka Rask

Getty
7 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.

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
10 Comments

When the Pittsburgh Penguins open their second-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night 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
8 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.

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

AP Images
10 Comments

Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.