Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News. He's been part of the THN team since 2011, but he's been married to hockey since he got beat up for collecting NHL sticker books in the mid-1980s. If you like strong opinions on the game itself, fantasy hockey tips and a hefty dose of pop culture in your readings, he's your man. And yes, the eyebrows are real.
NHL hockey has seen its best TV ratings of all-time this decade when you factor in the American markets. The game has never been as popular as it is today. And yet, among the four major North American sports, hockey still suffers from younger sibling syndrome, doesn’t it?
When Charles Barkley briefly mentioned Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper during an NBA playoff telecast Tuesday night, people got excited. The story popped up on the Lightning’s website.
Here’s the clip from Tuesday’s edition of Inside the NBA on TNT. Barkley, a hockey fan, starts by mentioning how he watched Game 4 of the Capitals/Islanders series and wants to know what happened in the Blackhawks/Predators overtime. Then, the shoutout to Tampa’s ‘Coach Coop’ at the end:
We’re dealing in duck, not crow, but the former made us eat the latter Wednesday night.
The pesky, gritty Winnipeg Jets were supposed to give the Anaheim Ducks a serious run in the Pacific Division semifinal. Plenty of experts picked Winnipeg to win the series, and we had Anaheim winning in seven games. After all, the Jets were a bruising squad built to make any opponent’s life miserable. Beating them would mean paying a hefty physical price. The Ducks also had the makings of a paper tiger, having posted a measly plus-10 goal differential, lowest among all 16 playoff teams, despite owning the Western Conference’s best record. Their defense was young and capable of being overpowered. They were a “one-line team” after the Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry unit. They had shaky goaltending with John Gibson hurt and Frederik Andersen fresh off an inconsistent season.
Part of the series played out as expected. The Jets were a pain in the behind, bludgeoning the Ducks in the corners and staking third-period leads in three straight games to open the series. But that’s about all we got right. The Jets can feel good about their effort despite getting swept, but we grossly underestimated the sum of Anaheim’s parts.
It’s clearer every day the players won’t be the most intriguing free agents this NHL off-season. Coaching and front office vacancies keep sprouting up. We’re only halfway through round 1 of the playoffs, and we’ve seen bench bosses Todd McLellan (Sharks), Peter Horacek (Leafs) and Craig Berube (Flyers) part ways with their teams, McLellan via mutual agreement and the latter two via firing. Leafs GM Dave Nonis got the axe and, in the biggest bombshell of them all, the Boston Bruins pink-slipped GM Peter Chiarelli.
Was there cause for Chiarelli’s firing? Yes, most notably his bungling of the Tyler Seguin trade, the cap mismanagement of Johnny Boychuk and missing the playoffs this season.
But that doesn’t mean Chiarelli has to wait long to find new work. Chiarelli amassed quite a resume before the wheels came off. Chiarelli’s Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, reached the final in 2013 and won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record last year. His nine seasons as GM were book-ended by a missed post-season his first year and the final year, in which the Bruins were eliminated on the season’s final day. Bruins drafted during Chiarelli’s tenure included key 2011 Stanley Cup cogs Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand. Chiarelli didn’t technically draft Phil Kessel but turned him into the picks that yielded Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
It’s thus not a massive surprise to hear Chiarelli already met with another NHL team Wednesday. It was a mild surprise to learn that team was the Edmonton Oilers, since it muddies the picture as to what his future role would be. General manager makes sense, except the Oilers still have one, Craig MacTavish, as of this exact moment. We know Bob Nicholson is now CEO of all aspects of the Oilers Entertainment Group.
It was magical seeing towel-waving Jets fans pack the MTS Centre for Winnipeg’s first playoff game in 19 years Monday night. Still, it was a night to forget for the Jets, who blew their third straight third-period lead and lost to the Anaheim Ducks in overtime, falling behind 3-0 in the Pacific Division semifinal.
It was an especially nightmarish evening for Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who was on the ice for three of Anaheim’s five goals and sucker-punched Corey Perry after Perry scored in the second period, a-la Dale Hunter’s attack on Pierre Turgeon. Perry turned out to be fine, but it didn’t make Byfuglien’s actions any less selfish and dumb. The play was over.
So, over the past 22 days, we’ve seen the following acts from Dustin Byfuglien, arguably the Winnipeg Jets’ best, most important player:
A cruel and tragic twist of fate struck the Russian hockey community over the past week.
First, coach Valery Belousov passed away April 16. He was 66. Belousov won three Russian championships and enjoyed a successful run in the KHL late in his career, most famously guiding Traktor Chelyabinsk from the league basement in 2010-11 to the Gagarin Cup final in 2012-13.
Then, returning home from Belousov’s funeral April 21, coach Sergei Mikhalyov died in a car accident in the Chelyabinsk region. He was 67. He coached Salavat Yulaev Ufa for several seasons and most recently served as GM of Lada Togliatti in the VHL, Russia’s second-tier pro league. Mikhalyov also coached Russia’s world junior team to a silver medal in 2006.
Was the NHL’s draft lottery presentation the pinnacle of television entertainment? Of course not. But, admit it, your heart pounded through your chest every time Bill Daly flipped over a rectangular team card in his hellish Rorschach test. It was quite the emotional ride, and that was just for fans and journalists. Imagine how team executives felt.
That’s why we should forgive Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray for his downtrodden reaction in the immediate aftermath of seeing the Edmonton Oilers land the first overall pick for the fourth friggin’ time in six years. Sure, Buffalo’s “plan” for Connor McDavid consisted of a mere 20 percent chance of winning the lottery, preceded by what may or may not have been an elaborate season-long tank operation. But in the moment, with a generational talent of McDavid’s ilk closer to Murray’s fingertips than to any other GM’s, who could fault him if his emotional, human side really wanted No. 97 in Western New York?
So Murray’s remark, “I’m disappointed for our fans,” deserves a pass. Who wouldn’t be disappointed? It could’ve been perceived as an affront to prospective No. 2 selection Jack Eichel, but that’s not what it was. Murray also said, “We’re disappointed not to get first, but we’re happy with second. Two franchise-changing guys in this draft.”
Despite the sting of losing McDavid, Murray and the Sabres realize they still very much have a franchise pillar waiting for them on draft day. Sabres fans should do the same. Especially considering how many other pieces the team has amassed in recent seasons.
If you’ve just lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs or if you’re annoyed at the header of this article, you’re likely thinking, “Sheesh, it’s one game, this is not news, mountain out of a molehill,” etc. And you’d be right in certain cases. You’d be wrong in others, however. No two series are created equal, and some Game 1 defeats were more alarming than others.
Here’s a brief rundown of the Game 1 losers, ranked from most justified in panicking to least.
A fleeting moment in goaltender Scott Darling’s scene-stealing Wednesday performance summed up his season: a playful wink at an official.
Darling was right in the middle of setting an NHL record for the most minutes played in relief (67:44) without allowing a goal. He had just stopped one of the 42 shots he’d face on a night in which his Chicago Blackhawks rallied from a 3-0 deficit to gut out an overtime road win in Nashville. He’d quite possibly spurred a goaltending controversy with Corey Crawford. Yet Darling wasn’t above a fun little wink. He doesn’t remember when it happened, as he said he had a few different interactions with the refs in Game 1. He skated by and apologized for yelling at them. They bought him some time when he cramped up in OT. And there was the wink, which represented someone stopping to enjoy the latest destination on his unlikely road.
Maybe that sense of perspective and appreciation is precisely what made Darling a cool customer – and a winner – in Game 1.