The narratives driving the NHL and NBA playoffs…
After it was clear Sidney Crosby suffered his latest concussion via his hit to the head in Game Three courtesy of Matt Niskanen, my first thought was that he’d be out for the rest of the playoffs. My second thought was that a big reason for the extended summer could be the fact that the Penguins could be doomed to die in the second round without their captain.
Turns out I was wrong, twice.
And thank God for that. The Penguins rallied without Crosby in Game Four, defending their home ice and putting up what seemed to be an insurmountable two game lead. Then again, we’ve seen this year just how secure those 3-1 leads can be across a range of sports.
And so it followed that the Capitals would defend their own home this weekend, pushing the series to six games with a win in Game Five at the Verizon Center. Even after all the panic and hand-wringing that followed the initial loss, the Capitals now just need to win two games to finically vanquish their tormentors. Easier said than done, obviously, but it’s been done before.
Every playoff matchup seems to develop their own narrative, and this year’s editions of the NBA and NHL playoffs are no different. In today’s Update, we’re going to take a look at the narrative in each of the series going on right now, and in the NHL’s most high profile matchup, the dominant word seems to be comeback.
The Capitals came back from two straight losses to make this a series again in Game Three. The Penguins mounted an impressive response to their captain’s injury, and took Game Four, and the Capitals came back from what seemed to be the depths of defeat, trailing in the third period, to extend the series in Game Five.
We’ll see if the Caps can complete the comeback, and change their narrative once and for all.
So the high-profile series in the East has been all about the ability of a hockey team to comeback. How about the little brother series, the one between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators (which only a few hundred people watched on a weekend afternoon). What’s that one been about?
And its surprising—I’m not sure many people would describe either team’s play style as fast-paced, Michael Grabner be damned. But it’s not so much about how fast the play or players on the ice have been, but about how fast things can change in this series.
It seemed the Senators had this series by the throat, until the teams stepped off the planes in New York, where the Rangers quickly grabbed the roles of dominators. Then when it seemed the Rangers had the Senators right where they wanted them in Game Five (twice no less), collapses that came with the speed of a storm came to put the Senators back in the drivers seat.
It’s been a testament to just how quickly the stakes and situations can change in hockey. One minute, you’re leading a game, even a series, and the next, you’re staring the end of the season in the face. Just ask the New York Rangers.
The good news for the Rangers, and the bad news for the Senators, is that there is plenty of times for a few more changes this series. With Game Six back in New York tonight, I wouldn’t be setting too firm of expectations until the final buzzer has sounded.
A quick intermission as we move from the NHL’s East to the West, on a story that touches the whole league, and may decide a series in the West yet: goaltender interference, and good goals.
Tim and I talked about this a bit last week, but the biggest problem is not that there is controversy about the rulings themselves. Some of that is unavoidable, and a little controversy during a playoff series certainly never hurt ratings in my memory. But the issue here isn’t just that a controversy exists—it’s that no one knows how to evaluate them.
If you talked to 100 hockey fans, you’d probably get 100 different versions of what constitutes goaltender interference and what goals should count and what goals shouldn’t. If you talked 100 players, you’d get 100 more different answers and 100 coaches, GMs and scouts, 100 more. And the rulebook is no help here.
The NHL needs to draw a line in the sand this offseason, and help define what is or isn’t interference. Side with the goalies, and say any contact invalidates a tally, or side with the scorers and say the conflict has to be made with intentionally with magic and in the crease. Then stick to that rule.
We’ll still argue about whether someone was in the crease, or what constitutes “intent”. That will never go away. But at least we’ll have the same standards to judge these goals on.
In a sport where goals are so rare, especially in the playoffs, we can’t afford to be unclear about what constitutes a good goal.
We’re seeing a changing of the guard in the West, in real-time, this year. The Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs this year, the Blackhawks were slept in convincing fashion, and the San Jose Sharks were knocked out in the first round as well. The conference’s old guard is still impressive and talented, but overwhelming no more.
And the new players are announcing their arrival. The Kings were replaced in this tournament most notably by the Calgary Flames, who are riding young players like Johny Gudreau and Keith Tkachuck to a an energetic, if short, playoff berth. And the Sharks were knockout by their fellow pacific coasters in Edmonton, who with Connor McDavid and a host of young talented players seem ready to turn the corner into a perennial contender.
But of all these new contenders, the most impressive has been the Nashville Predators. Through two rounds, the Predators were first to celebrate twice, sweeping the (perhaps former) class of the NHL in the Blackhawks before dispatching with the Blues while everyone else was still fighting it out.
And they are impressing in fun fashion. PK Subban is dancing to the delight of everyone not named Mike Milbury, young stars like Filip Forsberg are among the team’s leading point scorers, and the area the team plays in is responding. It may be in the american south, but Nashville posted its highest local TV share for hockey ever this week.
As the NHL is forced to move along from cash cows like Chicago, there’s a definite vacuum for the next truly elite team. And while there are a few with claims to the crown, the team in the yellow jerseys is my pick.
NHL fans live for the drama, and they are finally going to get it.
It took until the second round to get a series to go to Game Seven, and it may very likely be just one of the twelve series the sport will have seen by the end of this round goes the full length, but we finally have one. And there is nothing like the feeling leading up to a Game Seven, for everyone involved, both those with bonds to the teams playing, who likely haven’t slept since the final buzzer sounded in the last contest and have been cranky and irritable ever after, and the rest of us who get to enjoy the fallout.
And this is the perfect series for a Game Seven. There have been controversies, blowouts, physical play, and lots of goals. There are stars, veterans, young guns. There are talented goalies that can be beaten, and the scorers that can beat them. This is why we watch playoff hockey.
Like we talked about in the last section, there is a changing of the guard in the NHL, but it isn’t instantaneous. And while the Predators may have bested some of the conference’s big names, the old guard isn’t completely dead yet. Edmonton has a chance to put a pretty big sword in them on Wednesday for Game Seven, and take their next step as a team on the rise, and Anaheim has the chance to take one more ride with heroes like Kesler, Getzlof and Perry.
From an NHL series that featured a hockey fight to an NBA one that did.
Safe to say that the two Eastern Conference teams vying for the #1 contender position don’t like each other very much. The Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards cam etc blows last week, in what may have been the first fight ever recorded between two guys named Kelly.
The actual play has been a heavyweight fight in its own right, with both teams getting a chance to land some haymakers on their home court. The Celtics jumped out to the kind of lead that had proud Bostonians peacocking and predicting a sweep, but quite the opposite happened when the series went to Washington. The Wizards controlled their home games the way the Celtics did theirs, and we come back to Boston for Game Five as we did for Game One, all square.
These teams are so evenly matched—Washington has the best player on the floor in John Wall, but Boston probably has the better starting five. The Wizards have the better guard tandem, but the Celtics have a better forward group. And while many expect the Cavs to win handily next round, and they just may, being second in the East still matters, especially when it comes time to reload for another run at the champs this offseason.
I expect these teams to continue to defend their home court, and I expect the teams playing at home to win out. That means the Celtics will be moving on—but it won’t be easy.
We may have a heavyweight battle between the Wizards and the Celtics to become the #1 contender, but neither can stand with the current champ.
Cleveland obviously won in fairly easy fashion in their matchup against Toronto, but the most impressive way was how little the Cavaliers seemed to care about the games being played. It was as if the Cleveland players were playing their own game, trying to decide who could do the more ridiculous stunt while still taking home a victory in a perfect four games.
Dahtay Jones dunked so hard that he got fined two-thirds of his salary. Two-thirds! LeBron James is shooting with his goddam off hand, at least according to the Ringer. That’s even more aggressive than beating an opponent with one hand tied behind your back.
I guess when you’re so much better than the team in front of you and that team all but lays down and lets you walk out triumphantly, you have to entertain yourself somehow.
The NBA’s West is mirroring the East.
We know who the champ is out west too. And boy, are they better than their competition in this round. Sounds familiar.
This is life in the modern day NBA. We may hope and find ways to convince ourselves during the offseason that other teams can compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, but right now, there just isn’t enough room in this league for more than two super teams.
Don’t get me wrong, there are other ways to build a team, just ask the pair we profile in the next section. But when the two teams are as super as they are right now, those other team building methods will almost always fall at their feet.
The poor Utah Jazz were on top of the basketball world a week or two ago, and they had every right to be. Beating a renowned team like the LA Clippers is no joke for any NBA team, much less a team trying to build a reputation and identity among NBA fans like the Jazz. The same could even be said about Toronto, who’ve had some cache in recent years as a fashionable team, but found out just how far they still have to go against Cleveland.
This week is a reminder, that in the NBA, measuring up to the greats takes more than one series victory.
Like we said, the West is mirroring the East. And while the Warriors play the Cavs and the Jazz are in the bodies of the Raptors, the roles of the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards are being played by a pair of teams from Texas.
It hasn’t followed all the same beats, but there’s a big battle shaping up in Texas for the right to try and spoil Golden State’s party next round. And like with Boston and Washington, we should celebrate these series, even if they won’t really help decide the championship come the end of the season.
Sports is all about crowning the best, sure. But it’s also about always believing that you and your team can wear that crown, even if the odds seem long. I want my players to have at least a slice of that irrational confidence that makes them believe they can always be the best, and fans should have a healthy dose too.
Play for yourself. Play to be better than you have been, and play for pride. That’s what we’re seeing in this matchup between Houston and San Antonio. Two different teams, with vastly different histories, personalities and play sales, battling to see who can come up on top.
May the best team win, even if this is as far as they go.