Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What'd I Miss? A Stanley Cup Finals Primer for Those Who Have Missed Anywhere Between The Last One Day To The Last Thirty Years of NHL Action

Sidney Crosby smiles at a grizzly bear named Brent. Courtesy of Zimbio.

In this edition of MN Sports Emporium, Dr. J—a former college netminder—talks to himself about the NHL playoffs. Let’s listen in. CAUTION: If you keep reading, you will learn about physics, and it will be fun and interesting and you won't fall asleep.

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So Dr. J, why should I be watching the NHL playoffs? Isn’t hockey less popular than NASCAR?

Well, if you are going by the 2014 Harris Poll of favorite American sports, then yes, hockey (6% of poll) is below NASCAR (7%). Just for reference, the NBA is also at 6%. The NFL still has a stranglehold on this poll, as it is the favorite sport of 32% of the American population. Doesn’t mean any of the sports mentioned here aren’t exciting.

Drive fast, turn left!

Yeah something like that. Anyway, how about we talk some ice hockey?

I mean, if we have to…

We have to. This is Minnesota.



To answer your initial question, the NHL playoffs marry the high intensity of UFC fight with the skill and subtlety of a high-stakes chess match. There is constant drama, end-to-end action, and a desperate style of play that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

It doesn’t matter if you have a team in the fight or even an interest in the sport. If you are going to watch postseason play, this is the time and place to do it. 


Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Convince me.

The game is fast, physical, and frenetic. Grown men are throwing well-tuned flesh machines at each other with seemingly reckless abandon. Small rubber objects are getting hurled across frozen water at velocities great enough to end your life. And on the other end of these missiles is some yahoo crazy enough to stand in front of this live ammunition. Like that’s his job. To get hit with a 100 mph projectile.

Yeah, but don’t goalies have a bunch of pads on?

That’s true, they certainly do. And for good reason. But that doesn’t mean goalies are impervious to the ramifications of a slap shot, just ask Kari Lehtonen

And you also have to realize that there are players on the ice not as well equipped to handle the rubber rockets as goalies. Skaters have minimal padding in many areas (such as the face) and, as routinely seen in the playoffs, they are the ones sprawling out all over the ice trying to get in front these shots so the goalie doesn’t have to. By the way, before you ask, it is against the rules to wear a full face mask.

Wait, wait. Are you kidding me? No face masks. What’s up with that?

Believe it or not, it’s a safety concern. Stick with me here. If someone runs into or checks you with a full cage and you don’t have anything, your face is going to get shoveled in much worse than some little rubber object hitting you.

Why don’t they just make everyone wear a mask then?

Because hockey players are crazy. The argument is you have better vision if there isn’t something in your line of sight... I don’t know, take it up with the union.

So no face masks, huh? What if someone gets hit in the face? Does that ever happen?

All the time. In the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, Andrew Shaw took a shot to the cheek and it broke his face. Besides the broken bones, there was an initial wound on his cheek and then an exit wound around his eye from the intense pressure caused by impact.

Courtesy of the Daily Mail and Getty Images.

Gross dude. Why doesn’t he at least wear one of those protective half-shields?

Because he may actually be crazy. Like for real. This season he took another puck to the face and swallowed two teeth, incurring 18 stitches in the process. Still doesn’t wear a mask.

Geez. So how long was he out for?

Didn’t miss a game in either instance.

What??

And that’s really not even that bad, to be honest. His current teammate Duncan Keith took a shot to the mouth during the 2010 playoff run and lost seven teeth. He returned to the game seven minutes later and finished the game.

And he came back in? Why would he do that?

According to Keith, “It’s just missing teeth. It’s a long way from the heart.”

Cheeky.

I see what you did there.

So that must be like getting beaned by a fastball in baseball then?

Worse, actually. Since a hockey puck is smaller and weighs more, it actually delivers more pressure on impact in comparison to a baseball by factor ≥ 2.5.

2.5? Where did that number come from? I thought Aroldis Chapman threw the ball like 105 MPH

Yes, he has been known to do that. But the fastest shot in the NHL this year was clocked at 108.5 MPH via Shea Weber (somewhere Kari Lehtonen’s balls are shivering). We can deduce the factor of 2.5 using simple physics.


Please don’t.


Pressure is equal to force divided by area. Since the distance from the mound to the plate is roughly equal to a slap shot from the blue line, and the measured velocities of the fastest slap shot and fastball are roughly equivalent, we can assume that the acceleration of each projectile is the same, for the purposes of this exercise.


Whatever you say.

Thus, by comparing the projectile’s cross sectional area and the relative pressure delivered on impact, we see that a hockey puck will hurt about 2.5 times as much as getting hit by a baseball.


That’s more than I needed to know.

You’re welcome.

Okay I get it. People get hit in the face. What else happens?

Well in the 2013 Stanley Cup final, Patrice Bergeron played with a punctured lung, broken ribs, torn cartilage/muscle, and a separated shoulder. Against doctors orders he literally risked his life to play for the Cup.

No, I meant with the actual sport. Enough of this “hockey players are tough” rhetoric. Tell me about hockey. I always have trouble getting into it on TV.

Oh, sorry. The game is extremely fast so I understand your sentiment. The NHL could do a better job showing slow motion replays of in-game plays. It takes a ridiculous amount of hand eye coordination and balance to play the sport, something that may be lost during a typical broadcast. For instance, check out this recent goal from Wisconsin’s own Joe Pavelski. You really have to see it a few times to appreciate it.

Hey that was neat. Maybe I’ll try to watch some of the finals. Who’s in it again?

The San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Have I heard of anyone playing?

There’s this Sidney Crosby guy that plays for the Penguins. He’s pretty good.

Well yeah…. But who else should I care about?

Seeing as how you are Minnesotan, here’s a list of players you might be interested in:

Sharks:
Paul Martin – Elk River, MN and Minnesota Golden Gopher
Justin Braun – White Bear Lake, MN
Brent Burns – Former Minnesota Wild

You might remember Brent from his years with the Wild. He had more teeth back then. Courtesy of CBS Sports.

Penguins:
Matt Cullen – Moorhead, MN and St. Cloud State Husky
Phil Kessel – Madison, WI and Minnesota Golden Gopher
Pascal Dupuis – Former Minnesota Wild (currently on Injured Reserve)
Sidney Crosby – CANADA and Shattuck St. Mary’s (MN)

What about that Malkin guy?

Ah, yes. Evgeni Malkin, a native Russian, is another superstar playing for the Penguins. When Malkin went out with an upper body injury with a month left to play in the season, no one was sure how the Penguins would handle losing their 2nd-leading scorer. Pittsburgh responded by going on an absolute tear, winning 14 of their last 16 games. In fact, they were playing so well without him, many wondered if Malkin’s return would disrupt team chemistry during their opening series against the New York Rangers.

That didn’t happen. Head coach Mike Sullivan, who was promoted from the AHL team half way through the season, astutely slotted Malkin in as the third line center and, in response, he has averaged nearly a point per game this playoffs on the way to winning the Eastern Conference.

An all-World player centering your third line? Talk about some serious offensive depth.

Exactly. Hey wait, since when did you become a hockey fan?

Since I looked at your notes.

Well played.

But I can’t pretend that I’ve been watching much of the playoffs so far. What have I missed?

It has been a very interesting playoffs this year. The biggest league powerhouses were eliminated in the first round, opening the door for a new champion to be crowned. Previously, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings had combined to win 5 out of the last 6 Stanley Cups and were being considered as modern day dynasties. After those two went down the field has been wide open.

That open void was supposed to be filled by the Washington Capitals, who won the President’s Trophy this season, awarded to the team that accumulates the NHL’s best record. But it was all for naught. The Capitals lost in 6 games to the Penguins in the second round, which is actually pretty good by Washington’s standards. In the last eight seasons, the Capitals have finished in either 1st or 2nd place in their division seven times, but have only three playoff series victories and 0 conference finals appearances to show for it. Ouch.

Another Caps season ends with this fan inadvertently gluing his hand to his forehead. Courtesy of thedraftanalyst.com.

The Western Conference equivalent to the Capitals in recent years would probably be the St. Louis Blues (Well, now that San Jose has finally made it to the Cup. This is the first time the Sharks have made the Stanley Cup Finals, having been the victims of several playoff upsets over the past fifteen years in earlier playoff rounds, including a catastrophic collapse to the Kings after going up 3-0 in the series two years ago. The Sharks have been in San Jose since 1976.). The Blues have had one of the top three records in their conference in each of the last five years but have consistently lost early in the playoffs. Running into the Kings twice, Blackhawks, and (gasp) Wild over the last 4 seasons was not kind to them.

This year was different as the Blues finally eliminated the rival Blackhawks and made it to their first conference finals since 2001. But after losing to the Sharks in the Conference Finals, it appears that once again the Blues are snake..err…Shark-bitten.

Anything else of note?

Nashville impressed. Dallas has talent. And Tampa Bay once again fought through key injuries to come oh so close.

Gotcha. So what should I look for in the Cup Finals?

Look for two talented rosters with a lot of offensive firepower. This series shapes up to be a very exciting Stanley Cup Final with two teams that finished in the top 5 in goals scored during the regular season (Pittsburgh was #2 and San Jose was #4).

The two squads are pretty evenly matched. The Penguins might have the advantage in team speed and Finals experience while the Sharks have more depth up and down the roster. Both teams do well with puck control. San Jose has an extremely dangerous power play while Pittsburgh has the advantage in the respective penalty kills.

Aside from the scoring of blue-liner Brent Burns, who had an absurd 27 goals during the regular season, the most from a defenseman since 2009, the Sharks boast the playoffs most effective forward line thus far. Star players Joe Thornton and Pavelski, along with Tomas Hertl, have been a nightmare for opposing defenses with their strong puck possession, passing, and ability to create space in the offensive zone. It will be interesting to see how the Penguins decide to match up with this line. My guess is you will see the Sidney Crosby line go face-to-face with this potent force.

So get ready for a supernova. Because stars are set to collide.

That joke: Caruso-inspired, Tyson-approved. Courtesy of Business Insider.

You are terrible.

Thanks.

Also available for the Penguins is the infamous HBK line, consisting of Carl Haglin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. These guys are a quick, offensive-minded trio whose play has even caught the attention of the original Heart Break Kid, Shawn Michaels. If this line continues to score, it will be hard for the Sharks to keep up.




"Mr. Michaels, two questions: First, do you think you're cute? And second, how confident are you in your sexiness?" Courtesy of NHL.com.


The most interesting story here, though, has to be the goaltending. While both starting goalies lack in NHL playoff experience, neither has shown a glimpse of vulnerability thus far. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins turned to AHL goalie Matt Morris after battle-tested starting ‘tender, Marc-Andre Fleury, went down with a concussion before the playoffs. The 22 year old Morris has stepped in brilliantly, putting together a fantastic postseason with a 93.0 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average. He remains in goal heading into the Cup finals even though Fleury is back healthy.

On the other end, Martin Jones has put up similar numbers for San Jose at 91.9 save percentage and a 2.12 GAA. This is Martin Jones’ first year on the Sharks. He was formerly the backup to top tier goalie Jonathan Quick on the Los Angeles Kings. But without anywhere for their backup to go, the Kings decided to part ways with Jones before the season by trading him on sub-market value to the Eastern Conference’s Boston Bruins, a trade designed specifically to keep him away from their Western Conference rival, the San Jose Sharks.

This plan completely backfired as the Bruins flipped Jones to the Sharks four days after acquiring him. Making matters worse, the Sharks eliminated the Kings in the first round this year, in no small part to Jones’ stellar play in the series. Take that, LA.

Interesting stuff. So who you got winning the Cup?

Should be a tight series so it could be hard to call. In situations like this I usually let the mascots battle it out. Here’s what nature says is going to happen.

That’s depressing. Thanks. I think we need to be done here.

I suppose it’s about that time. Wanna go get a beer and shoot some foosball?

I thought you’d never ask.

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