CBJ 2014 Playoff Preview: Better Know a Penguin

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I’ve already gushed about the Blue Jackets making the playoffs (and I make no apologies), but it’s time to move past the “hooray they did it” phase and consider “what are they getting into?” You’re going to see countless preview articles, so I’ll join the chorus and start with a look into the Penguins. Specifically, it’s time to think about the biggest threats to Columbus winning the series.

When Malkin Returns, Their Top Two Lines Are Terrifying

Warm Body – Sidney Crosby – Breathing Human is a lethal line just on its own, but when the Pens follow up with Evgeni Malkin – James Neal? It’s an onslaught of over point per game offensive terror for 2/3 of any given game. That is the trick though: Crosby and Malkin average 22:58 and 20:04 time on ice per game, respectively (via Hockey Reference). If a team can somehow keep them in check and jump on the chances generated in that remaining 18-20 minutes of ice time (assuming no overlap, which happens sometimes), then maybe they can beat the system. Both parts of that idea are easier said than done, of course. Capitalizing on Pittsburgh’s lack of depth is crucial, but a team can still be at the mercy of puck luck (and that depth issue is somewhat mitigated when Goc is in the lineup). As for “keep in check,” if Bylsma opts to overload with Malkin-Crosby-Neal (or if the Pens get a powerplay)? Then the opposition is for a rough ride.

Oh, and it sounds like Malkin could be back for Game 1. Gulp.

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NHL Perceptions: The Penguins vs Bruins Edition, Pt. 3

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This is Part 3 of a 3 part series on the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Today, we sort out the biggest reason why Boston won the series.

Today is the conclusion of the 3-part look into the 2013 Eastern Conference Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins. In Part 1 of the series, I looked at the team-level view of shot differential and concluded that the Penguins probably performed better than the Bruins. In Part 2, I looked at the performances of individual star players as representatives for their defensive pair or forward line. Games 1 and 2 were fairly even and then skewed by score effects. Games 3 and 4 featured offensive line dominance by the Penguins, and the final game even brought crushing possession performances by the Penguin defense.

The overarching motivation for all this came from an SI article by Allan Muir. He explained how the Penguins failed because they didn’t know they needed to dig deeper. He noted that the “Bruins were a team that thought team would win out,” and that Boston employed a “smothering defense” to deny Crosby and Malkin over and over again.

All that seems to ring hollow now. The Penguins were probably the better team, and the elite stars were all but unstoppable. Sidney Crosby in particular was ruthless, sporting a CF% average of .634 over the final two games. That’s impressive enough, but Crosby also had an offensive/defensive zone start ratio under 36% in Games 3 & 4. There’s no way he was suffocated. He blasted Boychuk-Ference to smithereens.

Yet the Penguins lost and Crosby’s contribution to the series was invisible to the scoresheet. No goals, no assits. The same thing happened to Malkin, Letang, and Neal. How did they reach such a low point? What kind of dark sorcery did the Bruins use to overcome their terrible shot-based play?

The answer is simple, of course. And curiously, it’s a word that Allan Muir didn’t even manage to include in his SI piece. It’s Rask.

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NHL Perceptions: The Penguins vs Bruins Edition, Pt. 2

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This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Today, we look at some individual player performances.

Previously, I started to consider the perceptions around the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. The 2013 Eastern Conference Final has served as the case study, that (supposedly) demoralizing sweep by the Boston Bruins. Allan Muir of SI described the Pens as “a team that continues to prize skill over will.” It’s an accusation (?) that doesn’t seem to be meaningful in any way. In Part 1, I concluded that the Pens were at least partially better at series possession ability than the Bruins.

The storylines took a twist for both teams after this series. The Pens got that “dispassionate” label (and we’ll come back to them shortly), but the Bruins were excused from that in their subsequent round loss. Yes, the story was that guys like Chara only fell to the Chicago Blackhawks because they were exhausted from their trek through the East. Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy discussed the concern this March in a reflection on the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Lambert notes that, “it’s pretty clear [Chara's] earned a game or three off. The Bruins can afford it now. They won’t be able to say the same when the playoffs start.”

I don’t disagree with this idea (although the Bs are running out of time for rest). The problem comes when we take a closer look at what happened to Chara in the ECF. You see, Boston wasn’t exactly in a good place against Pittsburgh.

(Before we go further, I will note the four most important pages for this consideration all come from the brilliant Extra Skater. I can’t emphasize enough just how great the site is. If you want to look further into the origin of these number, check out the game pages for ECF Game 1, ECF Game 2, ECF Game 2, and ECF Game 4)

The story SI shared was that “Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin [tried] to stickhandle their way through Boston’s smothering defense only to be rejected again and again.” The story on Chara was that exhaustion only finally hit him in the Cup Final. Let’s see exactly where all the star players stood in the 4 game series.

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NHL Perceptions: The Penguins vs Bruins Edition, Pt. 1

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This is Part 1 of a 3 part series on the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Today, we start with a team-level look a what happened.

We’re rapidly approaching playoff time, and I’m excited to be more than a side observer without serious rooting interest. Of the most likely Columbus matchups? I’m probably least pleased by the prospect of the Jackets facing the Boston Bruins. The perception is that the Bs are an unstoppable force in the Eastern Conference, that they have few real weaknesses. It’s the Bruins and then everyone else, says The Hockey News. And to date, that seems quasi-reasonable. As of this writing, the Bruins are the only Eastern team above 54% in 5-on-5 close Fenwick For %, bolstered by the likely Selke Trophy winner (and beloved possession monster) Patrice Bergeron, and possible Norris contender Zdeno Chara.

There’s also a perception that the Pittsburgh Penguins are the “top” team that lower seeds should be hoping to face. Rough play from Fleury tends to pop up, but the Pens’ Eastern Conference Finals “collapse” last year at the hands of the Bruins was described as a team-wide failure. We haven’t seen a fully healthy Pens team very often this year, but if recent playoff history means anything, we should write off Pittsburgh right now.

Allan Muir at Sports Illustrated paints a picture of the fallout and rationalizes the “why” immediately following the 4 game sweep in 2013. His 8th paragraph is a doozy, and seemingly an indictment of the whole Pittsburgh franchise.

These Penguins have consistently settled for less. Not because they don’t know where to dig, but because it probably never occurred to them they needed to. This is a team that continues to prize skill over will. Was that ever more apparent than last night? Watching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trying to skickhandle their way through Boston’s smothering defense only to be rejected again and again offered the perfect allegory to their failings. Right to the end, the Penguins thought talent would win out. The Bruins were a team that thought team would win out.

Pretty brutal, no? If Muir’s to be believed, it’s that grit and defense that should bring the Bruins to the forefront again, and see the Pens dispatched by anyone who dares challenge their skill. Easy as that right? Bring on the Pens!

Of course, the lopsided first two games completely changes the narrative appearance of the series. Our minds are quick to recall 3-0 and 6-1 scores, big and obvious victories for Boston. We also remember the Pens only scoring 2 goals in the series. Surely, it’s all a clear vindication of the gritty team-type game. There’s no way the Pens can hope to succeed in with the Bs in their way, right? Heck, any team might out-will their skill-only style!

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COLUMBUS CLINCHES 2014 PLAYOFF SPOT

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Baby Hockey Jesus

IT HAS HAPPENED. THE DAY HAS ARRIVED. THE HOUR IS HERE. ANOTHER TIME-BASED CLICHE TO POINT OUT THE FACT THAT THIS HAS BEEN AN EXCRUCIATING LONG WAIT FOR A PLAYOFF APPEARANCE.

THE COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS ARE GOING TO BE IN THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE APRIL 23, 2009! THANKS TO STABILITY IN GOAL, GREAT PLAY BY THOSE BROUGHT TO OHIO IN THE NASH TRADE, AND THE EMERGENCE OF A REAL TOP LINE CENTER IN RYAN JOHANSEN, THE BLUE JACKETS ARE MAKING A SPLASH THAT ACTUALLY SEEMS SUSTAINABLE. THAT LIST HINTS AT THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF MANY MEMBERS OF THE TEAM, BUT IN PARTICULAR IT’S HARD TO UNDERSTATE JUST HOW IMPORTANT JOHANSEN’S GROWTH IS TO THIS SUCCESS. MOST NIGHTS, HE FACES AND DESTROYS ROUGH COMPETITION, WHICH ONLY OPENS UP MORE CHANCES FOR THE OTHER TOP-9 PLAYERS. COLUMBUS BLOGGERS AND REPORTERS HAVE SPENT A LOT OF TIME TALKING ABOUT #19 AND ARE DESTINED TO DO EVEN MORE IN THE WEEKS AHEAD. THE PRAISE GIVEN TO HIM WILL BE WELL-DESERVED.

THERE ARE WEAKNESSES PRESENT FOR THIS CLUB (PARTICULARLY ON DEFENSE), AND THE JACKETS WILL HAVE AN UPHILL BATTLE AGAINST THEIR MOST LIKELY PLAYOFF OPPONENTS (PITTSBURGH OR BOSTON), BUT THEIR PUCK POSSESSION STANDING IS QUITE STRONG FOR ONCE. IT’S NOT IMPOSSIBLE FOR THIS TEAM TO STEAL A SERIES THIS YEAR, AND IT MIGHT NOT EVEN REQUIRE BOBROVSKY IS STANDING ON HIS HEAD (ALTHOUGH THAT’S A WONDERFUL EXTRA THING TO HAVE). HECK, A FEW MINOR TWEAKS, PERHAPS A NEW BACKUP GOALIE, AND ANY GROWTH BY THE YOUNGER MEMBERS OF THE BLUELINE COULD MEAN INCREDIBLE THINGS FOR THE JACKETS NEXT YEAR TOO!

I KNOW, I KNOW, “ENJOY THE MOMENT,” BUT IT’S SO EXCITING TO REALIZE THAT BOTH THE NOW AND THE FUTURE LOOK GOOD FOR THE BLUE JACKETS.

PLAYOFFS! PLAYOFFS! PLAYOFFS! FINALLY!

(apologies to Brett for the genre abuse that was this post)

The Loss of Playoff Leafs Fans is the Worst

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As a Blue Jackets fan, I’m both excited and on edge. Last night’s win versus the Coyotes brings Columbus to the brink of postseason berth (but not completely in yet). It spawned some magnificent work, and I imagine arms around Ohio are still sore from all the celebratory fist-pumping. Yet all is not well in the rest of the Eastern Conference, and as a hockey fan I’m left with mixed emotions. Last night’s elimination of the Toronto Maple Leafs takes something great away from the NHL.

Of course, I don’t actually mean this year’s team. Let’s not be stupid about this: it’s very easy to rationalize what happened to the Leafs this season. In short, Toronto did have a team built for sustainable success. Much of the problem is based on a lack of puck possession and an inability to defend. Other have discussed these issues with more eloquence than I can muster. James Mirtle is one of the best writers in hockey under normal circumstances, and he has been on fire in recent weeks. All his articles are worth reading, but his 3/26 commentary on the Leafs’ collapse and the companion piece on 3/30 are some of the sharpest writing you’ll see on the matter.

Of course, if you’re short on time, some tweets from Mr. Mirtle and the illustrious Eric Tulsky summarize the situation quite nicely.

Taken together, this is the big-picture idea of shot differential statistics as a proxy for possession. No one is claiming clairvoyance on the Toronto collapse. Statistics-based writers were (and are) merely suggesting that the long-term prospects for the Leafs should have been in question all season thanks to poor possession play.

For me, though, the real problem exists not in a bad hockey team being out of the playoffs. The issue is the fans of that team being disengaged from the playoffs. In the past few years, I’ve found myself following more and more Maple Leafs fans on Twitter, reading more their articles on blogs and fansites. These people are honestly some of the NHL’s best at sharing their passion, and it’s infections.

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Best Songs of 2013: 10-1

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Best Songs 2013

And here’s the Top 10 of the Best Songs of 2013! If you want to check out everything in one place, go visit the Spotify Playlist with all these songs. Thanks again for reading and listening along!

10. I Should Live in Salt by The National – I’ve found that The National are an all-or-nothing experience for many people, and the crux of the argument (for either side) is the baritone voice of Matt Berninger (it’s either a loaded powerhouse or brutally boring). The band isn’t especially flashy, so it’s all about the details. A typical album is full of slow-burn songs that have wrecked emotional cores built around curious lyrical observations and haunting instrumentation. In the context of The National, “Salt” is a showstopper, dripping with regret and held up by dark drum tones. If you aren’t a fan of the band, there’s probably no convincing you at this point. If you’re without opinion, give this one a try and hold on for the first instance of the refrain. It’s brutally beautiful.

09. White Noise by Disclosure – This is the best Daft Punk song of the year. “Get Lucky” and the other disco revival fare is catchy, sure. Meanwhile, Settle has everything I was hoping for in a true Discovery successor. Relentless beats makes “White Noise” pitch-perfect dancing music and the electronic winner of the year. I’m sure you’ve seen praise for “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” the bare-bones sibling of “White Noise.” This track makes my list for being more fleshed out, a bigger statement with better (and more memorable) singing.

08. Sacrilege by Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Sacrilege” manages to be the best YYYs song in some time because their singer is allowed to inhabit her entire spectrum. The greatest Karen O performances are captivating, terrifying, and pull your sympathy (often all at once). Here’s she’s quietly cooing one verse before screaming the next, a wonderful display of range. Of course, the YYYs aren’t a one trick band, and a memorable melody keeps the song in your mind hours after the sub-four minute playtime. Led by a wandering guitar line and a gospel choir, “Sacrilege” is miraculously on-point and avoids bloat despite all the ingredients in play.

07. Awkward by San Cisco – I am a damn sucker for perfect power pop (so much so that you’ll find another entry from this genre in the top 3). Jangling guitars, medium-fast temp, boy-girl singing blend, unintrusive-but-essential drumming below the fray. Yep, check all those boxes. It’s catchy, charming pop and that’s already a good start. “Awkward” is elevated further by its personality, as the chemistry of the aforementioned singers drives them away and together. The content is reasonably simple, but it plays perfectly.

06. Stay (originally performed by Rihanna) by Low – Grab a box of tissues, maybe a pint of ice cream (or a drink to cry into?), curl up on the cough. It’s sad-times you guys, but also haunting grace. “Stay” is the sound of two voices sharing a desperate cry for each other. “I want you to stay” doesn’t seem overtly touching when read in text form. Mimi Parker sells it completely, laying her soul bare with every strained line. I’ll admit ignorance of the original version before hearing Low’s “Stay” on the radio, but I now believe that the indie band cover is the definitive take.

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Best Songs of 2013: 25-11

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Best Songs 2013

Yes, I’m aware the schedule went right out the window. Yours would too if your life got dominated by a qualifier exam and working on a research publication(!!!). Never mind the wait, here’s a bunch of songs you should check out.

25. Mercy by TV on the Radio – Every time TV on the Radio releases new material it’s reason for excitement. They overcome the overuse of the phrase “unique” because they embody the word. The production style, the instrumentation, the band always manages to take you on a new journey. “Mercy” is no different, an urgent and exciting tune that fits only in the TVotR cannon.

24. Big Red Dragon by Little Green Cars – Little Green Cars are pure energy, and it’s so much fun to hear them explore their powers on their debut album. It was hard to pick a single track (highlights abound), but “Big Red Dragon” is too much to overlook. The whole thing bubbles with joy, and the melody is a complete earworm.

23. Never Run Away by Kurt Vile – You’ll see more press about the lengthy title track from Wakin on a Pretty Daze, but I’ll take “Never Run Away” instead. The succinct, catchy song grabs you with a dark start and carries through a great psych-rock tune without meandering off track.

22. No Destruction by Foxygen – If you need more Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco or younger-voiced Bob Dylan music in your life, I’d suggest looking to this track by Foxygen. Such comparisons could create lofty expectation, but the band thrives in this beloved musical niche.

21. Love Illumination by Franz Ferdinand – These Scots will never write another song like “Take Me Out.” This is important to remember and accept. Once you’ve made peace with the idea, songs like “Love Illumination” feel just right. Franz Ferdinand hit all the right notes to make you move and it’s fluid fun. The hidden trick to this song’s success? Those horns own.

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How Wide Open is the Hart Trophy Race? (It Isn’t, It’s Crosby)

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Welcome back to my blog for the first time in way too long. I’ll be posting the rest of my Best of 2013 Music posts soon. I ended my brief stint with The Hockey Writers this past week, and you can check out what I did over there if you’d like. But now for random hockey thoughts that interest me today!

Hart Trophy, Image via Wikimedia Commons

Hart Trophy, Image via Wikimedia Commons

It’s time for everybody’s favorite hockey silly season! No no, not Maple Leafs free agency (although that’s part of a great article you should read). It’s end-of-season awards time! Top 10 lists aplenty! Absurd arguments about the very nature of every trophy’s criteria! It’s that last part that I find both fun and frustrating. I get excitably mad whenever I start to think about the trouble of Vezina vs Hart problems (goalies are probably among the most valuable players in any given year), but we’re going to avoid that today.

Instead, let’s just focus in on the biggest individual award: the Hart Trophy. Of course, this means diving right into the giant can of phrasing worms. You already know the problem. “Player most valuable to his team” and “Best overall player” are suddenly forced to do battle. What if the “best”player is on a loaded team? Or what if the “best” player isn’t significantly above his competition and value becomes fuzzy?

Thankfully, we’re in a season where “best player” and “most valuable player” happen to intersect in one dynamic skater. It’s an easy choice for Hart this year. It’s Sidney Crosby and you should stop thinking about it.

Wait. What are you doing. Oh, c’mon. Don’t. Just… oh dear, now look what you’ve done.

Ugh.

Now admittedly I’ve cherry-picked some blatant, blinding homerism in the above examples but there is an issue that exists here. There are real human beings, ones that claim to pay attention to hockey, ones that will tell you a non-Crosby player should come away with league MVP honors this year (or at least should come close).

They’re wrong, of course. Even though you feel like you’re subjected to an infinite loop of Crosby propaganda, I don’t think we stop to actually thinkg about and evaluate how great he has been.

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Best Songs of 2013: 50-26

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Best Songs 2013

Welcome to the first installment of Best Songs 2013. The self-imposed rules: only one song per artist. Todd Terje broke the rules ever-so-slightly, but only because he’s not the sole composer one of the tracks. Don’t worry, you’ll see.

Come back tomorrow for the second part of the list. Did I miss any songs? Is there a great track you think deserves more attention? Let me know in the comments!

50. GMF by John Grant - This is both an instant hit and a grower, and given a few more weeks it might climb toward the top. Man, those lyrics though. “But I am the greatest m*********** that you’re ever gonna meet.” Believe it.

49. Strandbar (disko) by Todd Terje - The first 3:40 are a great buildup, but that piano kicking in demands some kind of physical movement. Add in a late-half breakdown and rebuild? Funky.

48. Take Back the Night by Justin Timberlake - When he’s on point, Timberlake delivers pop gems that stick. This track is no exception, an infectious dancey delight.

47. Empathetic People by Telekinesis - This song is a driving, fuzzed-out garage stomper with teeth enough to grip your mind long after the brisk 2:32 is over.

46. Ramona by Night Beds - Gently weeping guitars pull you in, but you’ll stay for the whole ride thanks to beautiful singing and dynamic control.

45. Rebirth by Yuck - The lo-fi sound of the band’s debut is gone in favor of this MBV homage at the center of Yuck’s second record. The result is great as notes bend and swirl.

44. You’ve Got Me Wonderin’ Now by Parquet Courts - You’ll bounce along to this one, with a pleasantly deep guitar and drum cut hiding below the lo-fi exterior.

43. Gold by Wake Owl - The song starts as a quiet, reflective piece. But slowly the sound builds, eventually hitting a powerful refrain. A great transformation.

42. Line of Fire by Junip - Best known for its use in ads for the Breaking Bad finale, “Line of Fire” sets a haunting tone thanks to ethereal vocals and an organ that hums just below the surface.

41. Casanova by San Fermin - The tenor brings The National to mind, but that’s good thing. Quiet piano slowly gives way to strings and the song hits a memorable climax as the singer croons “I’ll prepare a place for you.”

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