Matt Larkin

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.

Who will be the surprise hero of the 2015 playoffs? 10 players to watch

Matt Larkin
Kevin Hayes (Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Chris Kontos. Claude Lemieux. Jean Sebastien-Giguere. Fernando Pisani. Bryan Bickell. Justin Williams. It seems every year some player saves his best hockey for the post-season and becomes his team’s surprise hero. Who has a chance to do the same this year?

I present 10 players to consider. Some are cogs in Cup-contending machines. Others are standout performers with potential to elevate underdog squads.

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10 shocking moments that changed NHL playoff series

Matt Larkin
Marty McSorley.  (Photo by Graig Abel Collection/Getty Images)

May 12, 2014. The Anaheim Ducks have just beaten the Los Angeles Kings a third straight time, staking a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference semifinal. A big reason for the Ducks’ success: young goalie John Gibson, fresh off stopping 67 of 70 shots in Anaheim’s Game 3 and 4 victories.

Cue sarcastic Kings coach Darryl Sutter after the game: “He’s the best goalie I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe we got one by him tonight. Lot of pressure on him now. A lot of pressure.”

Seed planted. Gibson holds his own in a Game 6 defeat after allowing a first-period goal, then the rookie’s wheels come off at home in Game 7. The Kings beat Gibson four times on 18 shots, chase him after 22 minutes and win the series. They hoist their second Stanley Cup in three years a month later.

We’ll never know just how impactful Sutter’s comment was – but it sure seemed to coincide with Gibson’s meltdown. One of the most exciting things about playoff series: the storylines and singular moments that change momentum. Here are the top series-changing events since 1967 expansion.

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THN’s top 100 playoff fantasy players for 2015

Matt Larkin
Steven Stamkos. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Congrats if you won your regular season fantasy pool. Apologies if you didn’t. Now it’s time to (a) win another pool and further annoy your pals or (b) redeem a nightmare season with a magical playoff run.

Playoff fantasy rankings are a vastly different beast. We can no longer evaluate players on merely their skill, role and teammates. Now we must factor in how far we believe each guy’s team will go. Note the lack of Sidney Crosby atop these rankings. Sorry, but given how done-like-dinner his Pittsburgh Penguins looked down the stretch, and that they face the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers, we can’t expect to have Crosby alive for long.

The list below reflects a blend of my personal Eastern and Western Conference team predictions and players’ overall values. Even if I don’t see the likes of Crosby or Carey Price going far, I recognize some people will disagree, so I won’t bury those superstars in the rankings too much. Above all else, playoff pools are about playing your hunch of what team will do well – and loading up on that team’s players. Juggle the rankings for yourself if you have a different idea of who goes far. But consider these 100 names within whatever order you set.

Positions listed reflect Yahoo league eligibility.

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The Shannon Szabados story: why her rise to men’s pro hockey stardom shouldn’t surprise us

Matt Larkin
Shannon Szabados. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Understanding what goaltender Shannon Szabados has accomplished in the past year is an exercise in mythbusting.

She’s broken new ground for female hockey players. She’s flourished in the all-male Southern Professional Hockey League after joining last year on the heels of her second Olympic gold medal for Canada. It’s tempting, though, to tell her story a certain romantic way: she overcomes insurmountable odds, endures hardship and abuse from teammates and opponents, and she triumphs.

That cliched idea belongs in Mulan. Toss it in the trash. There’s nothing conventional about Shannon Szabados’ journey. Her tale is not one of fighting to survive in the male game. It’s about growing up in the male game and earning a spot she’s worked toward her entire life. This is Szabados’ inspiring true story. And it’s nowhere near finished.

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Can Carolina be next year’s Calgary? Here’s what GM Ron Francis thinks

Matt Larkin
Ron Francis.  (Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)

Ron Francis accomplished a lot as a player. He won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he played in four All-Star Games, and he lined his trophy case with a Selke, three Lady Byngs and a King Clancy. He hit the 100-point mark three times. He’s a top-five scorer in NHL history. ‘Ronnie Franchise’ also did some marvellous things captaining the Carolina Hurricanes in the twilight of his career, sporting a classy swirl of grey in his hair. His 77 points in 2001-02 were the second most all-time by a 38-year-old. He was hockey’s answer to Cal Ripken Jr.

But even someone as decorated as Francis had to realize he inherited a boat full of holes when he took over as Carolina Hurricanes GM last April. The Canes had missed the playoffs five straight seasons. They didn’t have a single prospect outside the NHL ranked in Future Watch 2014′s top 75. Captain Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward, two prime components of their 2006 Cup-winning team, were shells of their old selves. Alexander Semin wasn’t justifying the contract extension that paid him $7 million annually.

At the THN office, we couldn’t have been more bearish on the Canes entering 2014-15. We weren’t confident each of their top six forwards would bounce back and, more importantly, we felt they had one of the NHL’s weakest bluelines behind stalwarts Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera. Things looked bleak for Francis’ Canes, and that’s how they turned out. Carolina has stumbled to its worst points percentage since 2002-03. Semin has somehow gotten worse. Eric and Jordan Staal combined have produced less than what Eric used to singlehandedly.

So it would be forgivable, then, to catch Francis in an ornery mood when it’s time to discuss what went wrong this year. That simply isn’t the case, though. Francis is downright upbeat, and he makes an interesting case as to why his team isn’t nearly as hopeless as it may seem on paper.

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Suspend him or not: David Backes cross-checks Mark Stuart’s neck

Matt Larkin
David Backes (Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

Winnipeg Jets fans, please sit down and take a deep breath. Have a sip of tea or beer. Chase it with a Xanax if need be. Bask in Tuesday night’s victory over the St. Louis Blues.

And try not to think about St. Louis captain David Backes’ cross-check on Jets D-man Mark Stuart. It probably reminds you a lot of the cross-check that earned Dustin Byfuglien a four-game suspension last week. But a few crucial differences likely have Backes escaping supplemental discipline.

First, let’s look at the GIF of Backes cross-checking Stuart:

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Would Pittsburgh be better off with Jordan Staal and James Neal right now?

Matt Larkin
Jordan Staal. (Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff chances look grimmer by the day. They took a massive hit over the weekend with deflating losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers.

A thought that has crossed my mind, watching Pittsburgh’s top-heavy squad take bad penalties and struggle to convert chances in recent weeks: these guys miss Jordan Staal. They were a different team with him as their third-line center. He was a big, strong, two-way presence who could break open a game with a shorthanded rush. Few teams in the league had that caliber of player that far down the depth chart.

The Pens had to move Staal in 2012 after he rejected Ray Shero’s 10-year offer, and they did well to land Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the pick that yielded Derrick Pouliot. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use Staal’s skill set right about now.

Interestingly, though, the Hurricanes would be far better off with Sutter, Dumoulin and Pouliot, wouldn’t they? Staal has been a disaster. He has 30 goals in 173 games as a Cane. He had 29 in his rookie season with the Pens alone. He only has, oh, eight years left on a 10-year deal carrying a $6-million cap hit. Woof. Is this a rare trade both GMs involved would admit they want reversed, if we gave them truth serum injections? Oddly enough, that would involve Jim Rutherford trading Staal again. He acquired Staal as Hurricanes GM and now serves as Penguins GM.

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Why the Washington Capitals are a nightmare playoff matchup

Matt Larkin
Matt Niskanen, Alex Ovechkin and Joel Ward. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

We completed our Stanley Cup power rankings for THN’s Playoff Preview magazine a couple weeks ago, and we didn’t devote much air time to the Washington Capitals at our table debates. We slotted the Caps 13th. Their hot-and-cold play wasn’t blowing us away. Amid a pile of wins in February and March, they had letdowns against non-playoff teams Philadelphia (twice) and Dallas.

I tweeted March 3 that the Eastern Conference parity was incredible, and that I could see any of Tampa Bay, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Montreal, Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh reaching the Stanley Cup final. Apologies for including Pittsburgh in that group – yikes – but that’s not the point. As a reader named Angelos asked: where was Washington? I had deliberately omitted them.

And that looks more like an oversight every day. The Caps have quietly usurped the Pens and Isles to grab the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan division and look like a darn scary team to face in the post-season. Why?

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