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.
Somewhere, somehow, some quack-job Toronto Maple Leafs fan found a magic lamp. Or wand. Or puck. Or Punch Imlach’s fedora. Or anything to wish a mystical transformation upon hockey’s most sad-sack franchise.
And all the far-fetched theories or ideas typically reserved for irate late-night radio show callers began to come true.
“Yo, the Leafs should make Brendan Shanahan their president.”
“Yo, the Leafs should hire Mike Babcock as head coach.”
“Yo, the Leafs should trade Phil Kessel.”
“Yo, the Leafs should hire Lou Lamoriello as GM.”
“Yo, the Leafs should trade Dion Phaneuf.”
They all would’ve seemed like typical Toronto-media-constructed fantasies even a few years ago. Instead, they’ve happened. The Shanahan regime continues to slide pieces into place, transforming the Leafs team culture. Assistant GM Kyle Dubas is the franchise’s analytics driver and oversees the powerhouse AHL affiliate Marlies. Lamoriello has instilled the same tight-lipped mentality he used in New Jersey for close to three decades. Director of player personnel Mark Hunter holds the keys to the draft. And Babcock has changed the way this team plays. It spent year after year as one of the worst possession drivers in hockey and jumped to the middle of the pack in his first year as bench boss.
Who knew it was foreshadowing when Robby Fabbri won a dance contest last summer?
There he was one night, a rookie staring down embarrassment at the hands of veteran teammates. A hip-hop track blared. He could’ve crumbled under the pressure. Instead, he played it cool, busted out better moves than anyone else on the floor and bagged a $100 prize.
“I was just going with the flow,” he said with a laugh.
Fabbri did the same this month against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in his first playoff series. With his team trailing 3-1 in the third period of Game 5, Fabbri had the puck on his stick with a crucial opportunity to put his St. Louis Blues back in the game. He then turned the ice into his personal dance floor, the Hawks into his dance partners, Brent Seabrook in particular. Fabbri’s first career post-season goal was beautiful:
SERIES STARTS: Friday, 8 p.m. ET, in Dallas.
THE BLUES WIN IF…
St. Louis conquered its white whale. Now what? It was a monumental accomplishment for the franchise to finally oust the Joel Quenneville-era Chicago Blackhawks after three straight seasons of first-round exits, all after the Blues had dominant regular seasons. The key now is to use the victory as a springboard into newfound glory instead of an emotional triumph that drains all their energy. The Blues must be wary of a letdown in Game 1 on the road. If they can shrug off the potential adrenaline dump, they’re in good shape.
(Update: The Ducks officially fired Boudreau on Friday.)
There’s an elephant in the Ducks’ room. Bruce Boudreau is about to become a scapegoat. Perhaps replaced by a walrus.
We don’t know yet for sure, but an endorsement from Anaheim Ducks ownership and/or GM Bob Murray for their coach would be awfully surprising. Boudreau, after all, just fell to 1-7 in Game 7s for his career. He couldn’t get his team motivated to start the first period Wednesday night against Nashville. That problem has plagued him throughout his career in Game 7s. He also couldn’t get his Ducks to adjust and start working the puck down low when the Predators completely clogged the front of their net, protecting goalie Pekka Rinne as Secret Service agents would the president.
Boudreau is good coach. He’s an offensive wizard, regularly fielding teams who score at will. He’s a turnaround artist who can take over a new team and convert it from an also-ran into a regular season juggernaut and playoff contender quickly. But, fair or not, it’s a cold, hard fact he continuously fails to win The Big One. He’ll likely have to fall on the sword. This stacked Ducks team really doesn’t need much, save perhaps for one more good goal scorer, so what else can it do besides try a different coach? Franchise pillars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry turn 31 next month. They’re still young enough to be impact NHLers and fuel a championship team, but their window is closing rapidly. Their best years are likely behind them now, so the Ducks must act swiftly to boot their odds of a 2017 Cup run. That probably means trying a new bench boss.
Who are the best candidates to replace Boudreau if he’s fired? And what are Boudreau’s options in his next search for gainful employment?
SERIES STARTS: Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, in Tampa Bay.
THE LIGHTNING WIN IF…
It’s a testament to the Lightning’s depth of roster talent that, without their best player Steven Stamkos and their second-best defenseman Anton Stralman, they still shoved aside the Detroit Red Wings in five games in Round 1. Tampa reached the Stanley Cup final a year ago for a reason. If it was a one- or two-man team, that wouldn’t have been possible.
Welcome, everyone. Thanks for coming. Just walking through the door is a courageous first step. There’s coffee and donuts on the table in the corner. When you’re ready, sit with me in the circle.
Everyone join hands. It’s time to discuss the real possibility the Edmonton Oilers win the draft lottery this Saturday and pick first overall for the fifth time in seven years.
Their chances: 13.5 percent. It doesn’t make the Copper and Blue the favorite – that would be the Toronto Maple Leafs at 20 percent – but Edmonton has the second-best odds. The Oil sat third-best a year ago at 11.5 percent and still managed to win the Connor McDavid Ping-Pong Sweepstakes, so we know they have a chance, technically a better one this time around.
It’s deja vu, except it isn’t.
Many powerhouse St. Louis Blues teams have disappointed with shockingly early playoff exits in the past five seasons. They got swept by the Los Angeles Kings in Round 2 of the 2012 playoffs; led L.A. 2-0 in the series only to lose in the first round in 2013; led the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 only to lose in the first round in 2014; and bowed out to the No. 7 seed Minnesota Wild in six games in the first round of 2015.
A loss at home to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 tonight thus wouldn’t blow our hair back. At this point, early-round disappointments feel like second nature for the Blues. There’s a difference this time, however. The stakes are higher. Important heads stand to roll if St. Louis buckles under the pressure once more and loses a series it led 3-1.
Hockey fans living in the central time zone and anywhere east of there may one day remember spring of 2016 as The Red-Eye Playoffs. The need to stagger games has produced some late start times, and we’re not just talking the usual Pacific Division fare that starts at 10:30 p.m. ET and only stops diehard East Coasters from going to bed.
This year’s post-season has produced the oddity of Central-time games being treated like West Coast telecasts. Game 5 of the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues’ Central Division semifinal Thursday started at 8:42 p.m. central and 9:42 p.m. eastern for the third time in the series. The wildly entertaining game was too good to turn off, so it sucked a lot of sleep from a lot of people. Among that group: Chicago Blackhawks play-by-play personality Pat Foley. He decided he was fed up with the scheduling and unleashed this rant, mid-broadcast, before a commercial break cut him off: