The concept of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object is as old as time and it’s about to play itself out in the NHL Stanley Cup Semifinals. Or perhaps better put:
The fun thing about watching this VGK/COL series is knowing that we're just a few days away from not one, but TWO "Runaway Freight Train vs. Quarter Mile of Glue" series in the semifinals
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) June 11, 2021
I like that phrasing better.
In terms of creating chances in the regular season, both the Vegas Golden Knights and Tampa Bay Lightning were teams in the top-10. In terms of limiting chances in the regular season, the New York Islanders were the third best team in the league. I’m not going to jump through hoops to paint the Montreal Canadiens as defensive juggernauts (as statistically they’ve been in the better half of the league in most categories, but not by much), but their plan is certainly to defend well and get all-world goaltending from Carey Price.
My co-host on Hockey Central Jeff Marek loves the line “styles make fights,” and rarely are they defined this clear.
It’s not impossible for “quarter mile of glue” teams to just be so sticky that the team with the stars runs out of steam, but it’s impossible to deny who the favourites are at this point.
I mentioned the gambling odds on Twitter this morning:
To translate those odds, the books think Vegas is more than 80 per cent likely to win their series against Montreal, and you’d have to risk $455 on a bet if you’d like to win $100 back. Coolbet has the runaway train as huge, huge favourites here.
Tampa looks to be a big favourite too, but not to such a comical degree.
The way I see this is, if one of the “quarter mile of glue” teams is going to win, it’s going to be the Islanders, and that’s a nice payout. They’ve taken down two star-laden teams in a row, showing they can handle not just good opponents, but great ones. They keep chances down, scores close, and leave some up to the random chance of the hockey gods. A hundred dollar bet on the Isles pays you $215 bucks above your returned bet.
We’ve now got the styles and the odds set, so let’s get to the questions. I don’t think I’m touching any of these bets (Vegas isn’t worth the risk), but it’s clear the books see trains as superior to glue. Do you?
This tweet from our own Sportsnet Stats is super interesting, because there’s a few different ways to parse the facts:
Over the past 4 seasons, the 12 Hart Trophy finalists have combined to win a grand total of 2 playoff series:
2018: 0 (3 games won)
2019: 0 (0 games won)
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) June 11, 2021
One is that just, damn, bad luck happens to all players, and some of hockey’s best haven’t had much luck over the past four seasons.
The other is that having good players is bad. You might wanna steer clear of that one.
Another is that hockey is more of a team game than we like to believe, and that no single player can do it on their own. That has implications for great players who never won a title, and great players who’ve won a ton. It’s possible we over-value the big prize when we consider who the greats of the sport really are.
Yet another option here is that the league has to do more to protect its stars and fairly help them through. NBA stars are notorious for drawing more foul calls at the rim than run-of-the-mill bench players, while hockey is the complete opposite. Below is a wild look at how penalties are called against the best scorers in the NHL, once again from Jeff Veillette.
Here are the NHL's Top 20 scorers this season, and where they rank in penalties drawn per hour. This doesn't look like a team that gives their stars preferential treatment – it looks like a league that punishes its stars and lets their lesser opponents drag them down. pic.twitter.com/mBNuSxoAse
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) May 22, 2021
Just because you’re a great skater doesn’t mean that you should have to take more abuse. There’s no doubt those players should be drawing more penalties than they do given the offence they create.
Pretty much every conclusion mentioned above has some validity outside “good players are bad,” or “this group of Hart Finalists have no heart,” or “great players today don’t care about team success,” or whatever silly notion some want to project on them.
So what do you chalk it up to?
On to more quick-hit questions:
• How do you think Nazem Kadri felt Thursday night watching his team eliminated for the third time in his career due at least partially to his suspensions? I say “at least partially” because he’s extremely good, and he’s been on teams that viewed their depth as an advantage – which he’s neutered.
I don’t know if I’m more stunned it happened for a third time, or that it so obviously directly impacted the outcomes of each of those series, or that he had the audacity to challenge the latest suspension despite it being clearly a suspension-worthy hit and having lost all semblance of the benefit of the doubt.
At this point those suspensions feel career-defining, don’t they? Will he redeem himself over the rest of his career?
• How much of an advantage do you consider fans to be? Because Montreal’s “2,500 will feel like 25,000” crowd was great, and did their best, but it’s nothing like how Vegas’ crowd has legitimately affected games so far. They celebrated a non-goal in Game 3 so loud that Colorado stopped playing long enough for the Golden Knights to score an actual goal. They were so loud in Game 6 that Philipp Grubauer couldn’t pick up any audible clues that the puck was at the point and not in the corner, which may have earned Vegas their first goal of the game.
Fans are an advantage, but just how much of one are they?
• How much do you care about the Lightning and their “post-season salary cap” hit of ninety-some million dollars? It’s insane to me this is being painted as something new, or that they’re being painted as villains. The Chicago Blackhawks did this years ago with Patrick Kane, adding players at the deadline (who helped) while awaiting his post-season return, and they won a Stanley Cup. Other teams (including the Leafs here in Toronto) did it this very past season. Plenty of teams did. Is it worse because the Lightning did it with an expensive player? And if so, is that on them, or is your anger rightly directed at the rules they’re only playing by?
• Puck luck and randomness are a big part of hockey, but don’t you take some comfort in the fact that good teams generally find their way through? Not always of course, but that the final four of the NHL is the same this year (Vegas, Tampa, the Islanders and the team Corey Perry plays for) as it was last playoffs feels like some comfort that it’s probably not all just random chance out there. Respect to these teams who found their way back again.
I’ve got questions, but I’m looking forward to getting more answers in the weeks ahead. I look forward to picking through the comment section for your answers below.