Sports

Down Goes Brown Grab Bag: Sad Avalanche Tweets, Playoff Format...If Necessary

The Penguins and the Capitals are meeting in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
April 28, 2017, 1:05pm
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Welcome to Sean McIndoe's weekly grab bag, where he writes on a variety of NHL topics. You can follow him on Twitter. Check out the Biscuits podcast with Sean and Dave Lozo as they discuss the events of the week.)

Three stars of comedy

The third star: The sage of this oblivious Steve Yzerman fan. One young fan settled in to watch the OHL's Peterborough Petes in the playoffs while wearing the jersey of one of their most famous alumni. What he didn't know: Yzerman himself was literally sitting a few rows behind him.

This — Vishal Hussain (@Vishal_Hussain)April 25, 2017

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You can see how the whole scene played out in this thread.

The second star: This AHL goal call. This is from the dying seconds of Game 1 of the opening round series between the Gulls and the Reign. The goal itself isn't all that funny, but make sure to have your sound on for the play-by-play. I think the guy might be disappointed but it's really subtle so I'm not sure.

OH NOOOO! It's not Plano East, but it's not bad.

The first star: Alexander Ovechkin and Nazem Kadri. The Leafs went into their series against the Caps with a plan for stopping Ovechkin. Weirdly, it somehow didn't work.

This may be one of the greatest hockey photos ever taken. (In case you're wondering, here's the play that led to it.)

One star of tragedy

The first star: Are you OK, Colorado Avalanche Twitter? Over the last week, the hockey world began taking notice of the Avalanche Twitter account, which has been tweeting out facts about the team. Normally, that would be pretty standard, but this year's Avalanche were absolutely terrible, which makes it kind of tough to find nice things to say about them.

The solution? Apparently, tweeting out a string of just about the saddest facts you've ever seen.

Carl Soderberg played in 80 games this season, tallying 14 points. — Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche)April 26, 2017

Cody Goloubef dressed in 32 games for us this season. — Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche)April 25, 2017

Rene Bourque scored 12 goals this season, his most since 2011-12. — Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche)April 20, 2017

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Nikita Zadorov played in 56 games this season before suffering an ankle injury. — Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche)April 23, 2017

Guys, I think the Colorado Avalanche may need a hug.

Outrage of the week

The issue: The Capitals and the Penguins finished first and second in the regular-season standings, and now they're playing each other in the second round.

The outrage: It's completely ridiculous that the two best teams in the league are facing each other in Round 2.

Is it justified: Yeah, probably. I hear you. And I promise, I'm trying to get worked up about this, I really am. The NHL's playoff format is just plain weird, mainly because it's trying to be two things at once. It wants to be an old-school divisional format like we had back in the 80s and 90s, but it also wants to work in wild cards and crossovers. The end result is this weird thing that results in some really strange matchups, not to mention the Rangers trying to win a division they're not even in.

The top two teams in the regular season will meet in the 2nd round. The other matchups will see #6 vs #8, #9 vs #12 and #10 vs #16.

— Daniel Tolensky (@dtolensky)April 24, 2017

At the same time, I can't really get all that upset about this Washington-Pittsburgh matchup, for three reasons.

First, because it's actually happening. Seriously, this is the matchup I've been wanting to see all season long. Do you remember how crazy the last Pens–Caps regular-season game was? From that moment on, every right-thinking hockey fan was begging for this matchup. And now it's here.

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Sure, maybe it's arriving one round too early, but that's like getting exactly what you wanted for Christmas and then complaining that you didn't open that gift last. We're getting Caps–Pens, you guys. Be happy about this.

Second, I'm old, which means I remember when this used to happen all the time. Back in the 80s, there was a stretch where everyone knew that the Flames and the Oilers were the two best teams in their conference, if not the entire league. Most years, they met in the second round while two train wrecks from the Norris Division got matched up in the other series. Was it fair? No, but we didn't care. We wanted to see them play, and they did. Same with the Habs and the Bruins, who had four straight second-round matchups starting in 1988. It wasn't the end of the world.

Third, and most importantly, concepts like "the two best teams in the league" really don't mean all that much anymore. Twenty or 30 years ago, the best team in the league might finish 50 points ahead of its first-round opponent. The talent gap was enormous, so much so that if the underdog even won a game it was considered a monumental upset.

These days, 16 teams make the playoffs and there really isn't all that much separating them. We saw that with Chicago, which was a top seed and got swept by Nashville. We almost saw it with Washington, another top seed that needed everything they had to be beat the wild-card Leafs. The gap between great teams and merely good ones has never been smaller. How big is the gap between the Penguins and the Senators, really? Today it seems big, but compared to previous generations it's barely perceptible.

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All of which isn't to say that the current format is fine and the league shouldn't look at it. If the NHL wants to move back to just seeding each conference one through eight, sure, go for it. If you want to argue for going one step further and just seeding the entire league one through 16, I'm all ears. I don't think this current system is the best we can do.

But am I going to complain about it? Not really, no. I'm going to watch the Penguins and the Capitals put on a show, and ignore the nagging feeling that it might be two weeks early.

Obscure former player of the week

Last week, we went with Derek Laxdal, who owns the modern NHL record for career points per game in the playoffs, as long as you include players who only appeared in one game. This week, let's go with another obscure player who holds an NHL record, although in this case we're talking about a bit more legitimate one: Patrik Sundstrom.

Sundstrom was drafted by the Canucks in the ninth round of the 1980 draft, back when teams would use those late rounds to take chances on Europeans who might come over to North America someday. (Fellow obscure player Hakaan Loob was taken six picks later.) He arrived in Vancouver in 1982 and scored 23 goals, but his big breakout came in his sophomore year, when he racked up 38 goals and 91 points. He never hit those heights again, but he had two more 20-goal seasons in Vancouver before being traded to the Devils in a 1987 deal that saw the Canucks land longtime starting goalie Kirk McLean.

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Sundstrom played five years in New Jersey, including one with his twin brother, Peter. He continued to put up decent numbers, and by this point was even earning a few Selke votes for his two-way game. Sundstrom would eventually leave the NHL in 1992, returning to play in Sweden before retiring.

But his biggest moment came during the 1988 playoffs, in Game 3 of the Patrick Division final. The Devils pounded the Capitals 10-4, and Sundstrom racked up three goals and five assists on the night.

Nobody had ever scored eight points in the playoffs before—not Wayne Gretzky, not Bobby Orr, not Mario Lemieux. It set an NHL postseason record that was equaled by Lemieux in 1989, but still stands to this day.

Be It Resolved

The first round ended on Sunday night, and the league, to its credit, had the second-round schedule out almost immediately. And for the second round in a row, the schedule is pretty decent—no random gaps or back-to-backs. Nice work, NHL!

But while we're on the subject… here's what that the Ducks–Oilers series looks like.

Here's my question: Do we really still need the "if necessary" disclaimer on Games 5 through 7?

I feel like we don't. The NHL has been doing seven-game series since 1939, so I think we all pretty much grasp the concept by now. You play until one team has won four games, and then you stop playing. I think we've pretty much got it.

I mean, what's the concern here? Are we worried that if one team win the series in four straight, fans are still going to stream into their seats demanding to see a Game 5? Are the players going to show up and be confused that their services aren't required? Is the national hockey media going to descend on the arena and demand free food? The answer to that last question is clearly yes, but I think we're OK on the other ones.

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Maybe there's some legal reason to put the "if necessary" in small print on the ticket somewhere so some shady lawyer doesn't sue you, but for the rest of us, I think we're good. And I'm tired of little asterisks cluttering up my playoff schedule. Why yes, I am that petty, thanks for asking.

So be it resolved: We all understand how seven-game series work. "If necessary" can be put out to pasture.

(And hey, NHL: If you're looking for a use for all those extra asterisks you'll suddenly have lying around, try slapping them on every won/loss record of the loser point era.)

Classic YouTube clip breakdown

Since I mentioned their legendary matchups earlier, let's revisit the Battle of Alberta with the 1986 series between the upstart Flames and the heavily favored Oilers. It's the third period of Game 7, and the score is tied. Who'll get the winning goal? If you said Edmonton, you're right.

  • Yes, it's the infamous Steve Smith game, quite possibly the most memorable own goal ever scored in the NHL. Fair warning: Even 31 years later, it's still kind of hard to watch.
  • Let's set the scene a little. It's April 30, 1986. The Oilers have won the last two Stanley Cups and just had a 119-point regular season, but a good young Flames team is giving them all they can handle in their second-round matchup, taking them to a seventh and deciding game in Edmonton. We're midway through the third period of that game, we're tied at 2-2, and things are about to get tragic.
  • The Flames get some early pressure, but Grant Fuhr pokes the puck out to Wayne Gretzky, who easily takes it blueline to blueline because the neutral zone trap hasn't been invented yet. He makes a nice feed to Mark Napier, but Mike Vernon makes the stop.
  • Note how Vernon stays standing through the save, because this is before the butterfly had really caught on. Also note how as soon as the puck hits him, he immediately slides five feet away NHL 93-style and leaves the net wide open for a rebound. Who could have suspected that there may be a better way for goalies to play?
  • The Flames get it out and obscure player alumni Perry Berezan dumps it in deep before heading off on a change. He grabs a seat on the bench, and prepares to watch himself score the most famous goal of his career.
  • Even to this day, I can't watch this part without muttering "No, Steve, don't do it…" Maybe this time he'll just ring it around the boards and everything will be fine.
  • Nope.
  • Smith feels pressure and tries to throw it through the crease to his partner. That's a bad idea, since Fuhr is standing in said crease, and basic physics dictates that two solid objects can't occupy the same space at the same time. The puck deflects into the Oilers net, and the Flames have the lead.
  • You know how somebody like Phil Kessel or Jay Cutler will occasionally slump their shoulders a little bit and every sportscaster will immediately analyze their body language and conclude that they're a terrible person? I wonder where "collapsing face-down on the ice in horror" ranks on that scale.
  • Do I blame him? No, I do not. I react pretty much the same way every time I watch this play.
  • We get a quick shot of the Flames bench. Gee, no wonder they won, that guy wearing No. 21 is clearly Dean Youngblood.
  • I'm a longtime Maple Leafs fan so I love Lanny MacDonald more than just about anyone, but geez, Lanny, maybe ease up on the celebration just a bit. A man's soul has just died.
  • We get some extra drama when referee Bryan Lewis has to leave the game due to an earlier collision. I remember watching this at the time and thinking he was talking to the benches because the goal wasn't going to count. I was not a bright child.
  • By the way, you may recognize Lewis as the league's future director of officiating, who'd have to go on TV in 1993 and try to explain Kerry Fraser's missed call on the infamous Gretzky high-stick. OK, fine, I recognize him as that. Leave me alone, I'm working through some things.
  • You can hear the announcer mention that there's 14:46 remaining in the third. Over the years, the legend of this goal has grown to the point where most retellings have it coming in the dying minutes, if not in overtime, but the Oilers actually had a lot of time left to bail Smith out. Spoiler alert: They did not.
  • We skip ahead to the final buzzer, at which point the Flames pile off the bench and celebrate. Congratulations to Neil Sheehy for making his only appearance in this section for which he's not lip-syncing a terrible song.
  • Because I know you younger fans are wondering: The bald guy in the tracksuit you keep seeing on the Flames bench is the legendary Bearcat Murray, quite possibly the only NHL trainer to spawn his own fan club. Bearcat Murray was the greatest.
  • We close with a shot of the handshake line, with Smith going last for Edmonton. You can't see it in this clip, but he's sobbing the whole way. By the way, he's a rookie who wasn't even supposed to play in the series until another Oiler defenseman got hurt. Now he's going through a handshake line looking like this. It was quite possibly the saddest thing anyone had ever seen.
  • Oh, also it was his birthday that day. Yes, really.
  • God, this was depressing. Luckily, the epilogue here ends things on a bit of a happy note. The Oilers won the Cup again the following season, and Gretzky made sure that Smith was the first player to get his hands on it. Some credit that moment with helping start the tradition of the Cup handoff to a worthy teammate.
  • Against all odds, Smith went on to have a long and productive NHL career, spending five more years for Edmonton and making an All-Star team before playing another half-dozen in Chicago. He then finished his career in the late 90s by signing a free-agent deal with the Flames, since they damn sure owed him one.

Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at nhlgrabbag@gmail.com.