Ryan Lambert

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  • What We Learned: Want fun hockey? Play favorites in Stanley Cup Playoffs

    Getty ImagesHello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

    The thing that's great about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that any team can knock off any other one, regardless of seeding or apparent quality. A seven-game series is short, obviously, but it seems as though the NHL produces more postseason upsets on a regular basis than baseball, basketball or football.

    But this year, I don't care about any of that. I want the favorites to lay waste to the competition with displays of power both horrible and impressive, so that they can meet for what could be the most entertaining Cup Final in years. The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are the runaway best teams in the League this year and with good reason: They're deep everywhere and very, very good at everything. Playing each other for the best trophy in sports would produce by far the most attractive hockey in these playoffs.

    Just think about it: Both teams' first two lines might be the best top-six groups in the sport, with the Penguins having bolstered theirs at the deadline, and the Blackhawks having entered the season with theirs. They're just so deep up front. Pittsburgh has 11 players with 20 or more points this season; Chicago nine. Their D corps are likewise both very deep, though you'd probably prefer to have Joel Quenneville's guys than Dan Bylsma's.

    In net, Corey Crawford's numbers obviously stand out this season, but it wasn't so long ago that his save percentage was below league average, and that leads one to suspect he's more or less at Marc-Andre Fleury's level overall, which is to say slightly above average.

    I understand that it's not fun to root for the clear No. 1 seeds who were the only teams to break 70 points in the standings, but they're the heavy favorites for a reason. Pummeling eight- and five-seeds and four-seeds isn't the most exciting path to the Final, and all the romanticizing of the underdog story from the Kings last season shows exactly why. But when you don't have a rooting interest, fans should want to see the most interesting hockey possible, and Blackhawks/Penguins is most certainly that. I'm willing to sit through a mediocre, unsurprising first three rounds if the Final is a classic.

    A fully operational Penguins team taking on the Presidents' Trophy-winning Blackhawks are all anyone should ever want or need out of these playoffs, because it would be absolutely gorgeous.

    Read More »from What We Learned: Want fun hockey? Play favorites in Stanley Cup Playoffs
  • Getty ImagesTrending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?

    The Hart Trophy race has heated up, thanks in large part to Sid Crosby missing a quarter of the season. This week, I made the apparently unforgivable mistake of saying that anyone who would discount a player's chances for winning the award based on their not having made the playoffs "idiotic."

    The argument that if you didn't make the playoffs, you shouldn't get MVP consideration is essentially this: The only thing worthwhile in hockey is more or less whether you make the playoffs. That's why you play an 82-game regular season, and if you don't succeed in doing so in the course of that season, then your value automatically reverts to zero.

    The reason this was brought up at all was because there was some talk about the candidacy of Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who certainly merits consideration but whose team is very much on the bubble of playoff contention at this late date in the season.

    The school of thought among the incorrect people who think he should win the award is pretty obvious: Look at how bad Columbus is, but look where they are despite being bad.

    There is an apparently-sizable group of Professional Hockey Writers Association voters who would, at the end of the season, look at Bobrovsky's numbers, with the sky-high save percentage and sweet and lowdown goals-against average, and have two different opinions of them depending on where his (once again) not very good team finishes.

    If they get to 55 points and take the final playoff spot because Detroit falters in its final game, then his efforts to get a club with one of the worst offenses in the were indeed quite valuable.

    But if they get to 55 points and Detroit either matches or exceeds that total, then he, like everyone else that didn't make the playoffs, had no actual value whatsoever, at least in terms of assessing qualifications for this award.

    Of course, this goes without mentioning that some people also don't think goalies should be able to win the Hart at all, because if you were basing the award on straight-up value, a goalie would win it every year since they play 60-plus minutes a night for something like three-quarters of the season or more. That's a palatable argument, and I agree that in most cases a goaltender should have to blow everyone else's doors off to merit consideration. I don't think Bobrovsky has done that.

    Read More »from Why Hart Trophy winners don’t have to come from NHL playoff teams (Trending Topics)
  • What We Learned: This 48-game NHL season has been pretty great

    Getty ImagesHello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

    Puck Daddy's daily Death Watch posts have become essential reading for me in a very short period of time because the races to see who can squeeze into the playoffs have been particularly fascinating this season.

    Not that this is the kind of thing I think we should be saying too loudly, lest Gary Bettman and his cadre hear, but I've really come to enjoy the fact that this is a 48-game season instead of an 82-gamer. Each loss is that much more agonizing, each win that much more likely to bring a postseason berth. There's something to be said for the cold brutality of the natural selection that emerges over the course of a six-month season as opposed to one that runs three and a half, because it does a lot to ensure that the best teams possible are competing for the Stanley Cup. But seeing all these bad ones white-knuckle it has been fascinating.

    The East is a conference with its playoff teams all but decided at this point, though Winnipeg has the slimmest glimmer of hope for unseating Washington atop the abysmal Southeast. Nonetheless, the fact that a team like New Jersey was hanging around at all says a lot about the type of competition they were facing.

    It has given teams hope they almost certainly wouldn't have had otherwise, and allowed not-great teams like the Maple Leafs to secure a playoff spot they would almost assuredly have lost were it not for the fact that the calendar saved them from statistical correction running them down and sinking its teeth into their throat like a cheetah on the Serengeti.

    The West, as you might expect given the generally higher quality of the teams involved therein, is far more interesting, insofar as the Blue Jackets, the team that spent most of the week in eighth place, has also spent pretty much that entire time with less of a chance of sneaking in than the Red Wings lurking directly behind them.

    This, too, is somewhat a function of the shortened schedule: Games in hand simply mean far more than they do in an 82-game schedule, and holding on with slipping, whitening fingertips to that final playoff spot for a week has meant all the more given the number of games currently being packed into your average seven-day period this time around as opposed to the norm.

    Normally, I'm all for seeing teams not good enough for a playoff appearance having their hopes scuttled on jagged rocks as soon as humanly possible, so everyone can get on with the business of watching hockey that's actually compelling in any way. But because of all these atypically tight races, even the games featuring otherwise bad teams are coming off as interesting and even lively.

    Read More »from What We Learned: This 48-game NHL season has been pretty great
  • What’s going to happen with the Montreal Canadiens? (Trending Topics)

    Getty ImagesTrending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?

    It must be said, again, and perhaps over and over these days, that no one really expected the Montreal Canadiens to do anything this season.

    Well, apart from continue to be bad.

    They didn't really change much about the makeup of their team in the off-season. The front office, yes. The coach, yes. The team itself, not so much. Of the 19 Canadiens who have played at least 20 games this season, 17 played at least that many last year, and one of the ones who didn't was Andrei Markov, who has been revelatory even in his advanced age.

    It was therefore not unreasonable to say that a team that finished among the absolute dregs of the league — your Blue Jackets, your Oilers, your Islanders — wouldn't just be able to clamber back into one of the playoff spots they occupied not-so-comfortably in the 2010-11 campaign.

    Which is to say it wasn't like this was a good team that went through an inexplicably bad, season-long hiccup — not unlike the Flyers the year they drafted James van Riemsdyk or, hell, now. The Canadiens were a just-alright team that got considerably worse, and it was fair to expect they'd probably bob around somewhere in the middle. Being in the middle of 15th in the conference and sixth still doesn't get you into the playoffs.

    Since the season started, things have obviously differed greatly from expectations, but the told-you-sos coming out of La Belle Provence have been muted at best. Compare this with those emanating from the depths of central Ohio, where barely clutching onto eighth place apparently qualifies as a major achievement, and you'd think the Canadiens were playing like, ahem, the team they're playing like right now.

    When it takes a team as bad as Tampa coming to town and things don't even go that well against them until you get a late power play, that doesn't speak too well for the state of things.

    Despite that win over a team deep in the Eastern Conference's cellar, you'd have to say the Habs are losing these days, and losing ugly.

    Read More »from What’s going to happen with the Montreal Canadiens? (Trending Topics)
  • Frozen Four Notebook: It all went away for Quinnipiac

    APPITTSBURGH -- The Quinnipiac Bobcats spent a pretty good chunk of the season as the No. 1 team in the nation, and even this weekend lit ooked like that rating was well deserved for about 99:56.5. Then whatever it was that had propped up their incredible success throughout this campaign vanished in the blink of an eye.

    It was all so sudden. Much as they dictated the first game against St. Cloud State more or less from the outset, they did so against Yale, though obviously had far less to show for it. Jeff Malcolm spent the vast, vast majority of the first two periods bailing out his teammates as the Bobcats forwards, and particularly the line of Matthew Peca and Kellen and Connor Jones continued to press the attack. The more they pressed, and the more Malcolm made improbable saves, the sands in the hourglass appeared to be slipping not-so-slowly away. That Quinnipiac would claim its national title seemed an eventuality.

    Then a bad clearing attempt in the waning seconds of the middle period changed everything. Gus Young corralled it and put it toward goal, though without a particularly impressive amount of velocity. And Clinton Bourbonais, who had been making a nuisance of himself in front of the net all weekend, dropped his stick on it just enough to redirect it through Eric Hartzell's five-hole with 3.5 left in the second period.

    That was when Wile E. Coyote looked down and realized he ran out of cliff 20 feet prior. Try though Quinnipiac might, the lightning it had captured in the previous five periods couldn't be distilled again, and Yale ran the remainder of the game. Though shots were in Quinnipiac's favor in that desperate third period, only a few gave Malcolm cause for concern, but moreover, the defense and dedication to systems for which the Bobcats had become so famous entirely eluded them.

    Read More »from Frozen Four Notebook: It all went away for Quinnipiac
  • APPITTSBURGH — Regardless of what happens in the NCAA national title game between Quinnipiac and Yale Saturday night, the ECAC is going to be home to the national champion for the first time since 1989. Seven players in the game were alive to have seen Harvard win that title — six of them play for Quinnipiac.

    But what actually happens in the game is anyone’s guess. For one thing, and I have no way of checking this for sure, I believe this is probably the first time the NCAA national title game was a rematch of the ECAC consolation game, as both Yale and Quinnipiac crashed out in the semis following shutouts that probably shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

    For another, this is perhaps the least-likely title game of all time. While Quinnipiac was the first overall seed in the tournament and played its regional’s Nos. 4 and 3 teams en route to Pittsburgh, then put down another upstart No. 4 in St. Cloud on Thursday, Yale is likewise a No. 4 that has been playing like anything but. Its path to the Frozen Four finale ran through No. 2 overall Minnesota, No. 8 North Dakota, and No. 3 UMass Lowell. The first and third of those went to overtime. Consequently, if the Bulldogs were to pull off this win, it would have knocked off the top-3 seeds in the tournament, and played the toughest possible path they could have en route to the title.

    So with this having already been called perhaps the most unpredictable NCAA tournament in history, it’s only fitting that in a game between the No. 1 overall seed and the No. 15 that only backed in once someone else lost, it’s almost impossible to make a reasonable guess at who will win the title tonight.

    Read More »from NCAA Frozen Four: Can Quinnipiac continue dominance over Yale to win national title?
  • This is why NHL Awards season is the worst (Trending Topics)

    Getty ImagesTrending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?

    As the NHL's regular season dies down, the focus naturally turns not only to which teams are going to make the playoffs, but also which players or coaches deserve awards.

    And when that happens, discourse and sanity tend to go a bit off the rails.

    While this phenomenon is common for all types of awards, at no point does the argument over who deserves what ever get more shrill than when conversations to who seems to be the most valuable player. As many have brought up in the past, the reason for this is that the criteria for the award itself is defined far too broadly, and thus leads to the discussion of, "What qualifies as value to his team?"

    Everyone's going to define it differently, meaning that some rather irritating arguments both in favor of and against some candidates.

    For instance, the argument you often hear — from the same morons who think a guy shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame if he doesn't win a Stanley Cup — about why Steven Stamkos shouldn't have won the Hart last season, to cite a recent example, is that he couldn't have been that valuable if his team didn't make the playoffs. Never mind that he scored 60 goals and 97 points, Mathieu Garon couldn't make a save, and that, therefore, is somehow on him.

    In thinking about this the other day, as well as just how bad the Southeast Division is in general this season, I got to wondering about Alex Ovechkin's insane recent production. He has 17 goals in his last 16 games, a run so impressive that it seems unlikely anyone save for Steven Stamkos would be able to replicate it any time soon. Recall that when all the 50 in 50 talk about Stamkos really heated up, his best run was scoring 12 in 10. A goal is a goal, and I understand that, but it turns out that he's only scored five goals in 16 games against current playoff teams — including one Tuesday against Montreal that earned a lot of scoffs at this particular line of thinking, as though the one goal undermined it.

    It's not that these goals against truly bad teams don't count, it's that having a little more context for something as extraordinary as scoring more than a goal a game for 15 or 16 contests is probably important when determining "value."

    The answer for how good or bad Ovechkin is at this point in his career is, I think, probably somewhere in the middle of what he's done this year.

    Read More »from This is why NHL Awards season is the worst (Trending Topics)
  • NCAA Frozen Four Preview: Prepare to witness history

    APWell, the Frozen Four is finally upon us, and in just three days' time, a first-time national champion will be crowned.

    And actually, I guess it's important to note that these teams are all relative newcomers to the grandest stage in college hockey, given that the only one of Yale, UMass Lowell, St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac to make the Frozen Four ever was the Bulldogs. In 1952. So, y'know, it's been a while; at that point, the NCAA hockey tournament was itself just four years old.

    But that's what's interesting about this year's tournament. It's the first one ever — ever! — to not have the traditional Hockey East, WCHA and CCHA titans of Bostons College or University, Denver, Michigan, Miami, Minnesota, North Dakota or Wisconsin. You'll note that of that group, no teams come from traditional eastern little brother, the ECAC, but this year, both Yale and Quinnipiac do, so this is a banner year for the conference. Lowell, meanwhile, represents Hockey East, and St. Cloud fights out of the WCHA.

    Another interesting thing is that in this tournament, it's a pair of No. 1 seeds in their regionals (Quinnipiac, which was No. 1 overall, and Lowell, at No. 3) taking on two No. 4s (No. 13 St. Cloud and No. 15 Yale).

    Obviously, with so little history on the side of any of these schools — only Lowell has won national titles, all at the Div. 2 level, and none since the early 1980s — it's tough to say exactly what's going to happen at the CONSOL Energy Center this weekend, but let's take a stab at it anyway.

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  • What We Learned: The Southeast Division is really terrible

    Getty ImagesHello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

    The long-standing joke in the NHL is that the Southeast Division is the worst in hockey by a mile. And while that hasn't always been categorically true, it's certainly been true enough over the years that, unlike the belief that Sidney Crosby is a diving whiner, it's not always easy to separate legend out from reality.

    This year, however, there have been no such difficulties. The race to the bottom in the Southeast has reached an unfortunate nadir in the past several days, as the Capitals now lead it with a point total which equals that of the New York Islanders. That point total is just good enough to get them into the playoffs even under rational circumstances — for example, not giving a division winner an automatic top-3 seed just for fun — but it's also tied for 14th league-wide.

    Were you to look up ignominy in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of Adam Oates sneaking into this prime playoff spot, while still scowling over yet another defensive breakdown by these 2013 division-leading Caps, who have conceded 110 goals in just 39 games.

    The Capitals, unlike the teams ahead of them and also immediately behind them in the standings, have the luxury of playing Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Winnipeg four and five times this season. Their record against those teams, including last night's result against the Lightning, is 12-3-0. That should tell you everything you need to know about how fraudulently this division title is going to be won by whichever team backs into it least-hard: The Caps' record against teams outside the Southeast is a brutal 8-14-2.

    It doesn't really seem fair that, simply on the basis of geography, a team that actually deserved to win home ice by racking up a large number of points against teams that wouldn't struggle against middle-of-the-pack AHL sides won't be able to do so. People talk an awful lot about how the Maple Leafs aren't even that good, and they're probably not wrong, but they have 46 points playing in the only division in hockey with two 50-point teams. This is far more of an accomplishment than leading the only one with three teams at 34 or below. And only doing it by six points.

    I'm sure there have been worse-performing divisions than this one throughout NHL history, but what I doubt is that they've been quite this brutal to watch. These are some defensively ugly teams, as evidenced by the fact that Carolina, Winnipeg and Florida are in the bottom six in the league in goal differential, ranging from minus-18 to minus-37, respectively. That seems like a pretty good reason all other teams in the East are a combined 74-40-11 against these five teams, good for a .636 winning percentage, or a pace for about 104 points in an 82-game season. Only one team in the East (Buffalo, of course, at 2-8-2) has taken fewer than half its points against Southeast opponents.

    The good news, if you want to call it that, is this type of postseason abomination, which cropped up to a lesser extent last year when the Florida Panthers sneaked in as the No. 3 seed when it should have been eighth, is in its dying days.

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  • What’s the most intriguing NHL divisional race? (Trending Topics)

    Getty Images

    Trending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?

    Things just got interesting for the least-interesting division in hockey.

    There hasn't been much of a reason for anyone to care about the Northwest Division for a couple of years now. Calgary has been shambling from abject mediocrity to outright terribleness for the better part of half a decade; Edmonton couldn't stop losing if it tried; Colorado snuck into the playoffs that one year and regressed immediately thereafter; and Minnesota has always been reliably bad.

    Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks almost couldn't stop winning despite brewing goaltending controversies, a rotating cast of defensemen who infuriated the fanbase and major injuries to top players.

    Things are obviously different this season, with the Wild having made just enough strides in personnel moves over the last two years to get back to Vancouver's level, even as the Canucks shrank from their traditional spot atop the Western Conference as the team's infirmary filled up more than it really ever has.

    And now, these two teams sit locked in each others' grasps in the final weeks of a battle for the top spot in the suddenly up-for-grabs division. The winner gets the third overall spot — since neither is going to catch Anaheim or Chicago — while loser mires in uncertainty, given the way spots Nos. 3-7 are so tightly packed in the West.

    Read More »from What’s the most intriguing NHL divisional race? (Trending Topics)

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