Originally posted on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 3/31/12

This Week in Hockey is a weekly column in which assistant blogger Michael Spinner (@MichaelSpinner) shares and discusses the major storylines in the National Hockey League from the past week.

Stop Believing the Hype

So wait a second … Pittsburgh is not the automatic winner of the 2012 Stanley Cup? It’s all we’ve been hearing about for weeks now. The Penguins won eight straight games in January, and then enjoyed 11 consecutive victories from late February through the middle of March. Hockey ‘experts’ agreed they were the only team favored to win the Stanley Cup, and all but closed the door on the 2011-2012 post-season, weeks before the playoffs actually began.

After all, the Penguins were once 10 points out of first place in the Eastern Conference and cut the deficit to a single point … and then they got Sidney Crosby back. As far as hockey talk anywhere was concerned, the Stanley Cup should have been sent to Pittsburgh and returned sometime in June of 2013, when maybe, just maybe, somebody else could win it. This was fine by me, I had my spring all mapped out anyway. Instead of rooting for the New York Rangers and their hopeful attempt to win the Stanley Cup after a magnificent season, I found better use of my time with items such as learning French so I could become General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens anyway.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation, the Pittsburgh Penguins proved to be mere mortals after all. They allowed the Ottawa Senators to score eight goals in regulation time … then lost  to the New York Islanders – yes the Islanders of all teams – twice during a three-day span. Remove Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win over New Jersey from the equation, and during their last three losses to Ottawa and the Islanders twice, the Penguins have been outscored 18-10 … hardly the kind of defensive numbers a team needs to win 16 post-season games.

In other words, the Pittsburgh Penguins are good, even scary good, but to suggest they are the only team with the goods to win the Stanley Cup would be absurd. Sure, they can score goals in bunches, but we’ve seen a team do that for several years on-end, and not go too far in the post-season. That team was known as the Washington Capitals, and while the Caps spent years as the greatest show on ice, they were also living proof that there is a formula to winning a Stanley Cup, and that formula has nothing to do with scoring enough goals to cover up defensive deficiencies … an offense-first formula that seems to be what the Penguins have operated on since Crosby’s return, and it is proving to not be good enough for Pittsburgh to be the last team standing.

None of this is to suggest the Penguins cannot or will not win the Cup, but at the same time, all their success from February in March accomplished was to make them the NHL Flavor of the Week, and give zero indication as to what is about to happen in the playoffs.

‘Flavor of the Week’ should actually become an award the way the NHL media is operating. This year more than ever, as soon as a team wins a few games, the analysis thereof becomes an exercise in ‘Cupology’ instead of an admission that a winning streak is nothing more than that, and there really is no way to predict how things will play out in the post-season.

It’s amazing how quickly a team becomes this Flavor of the Week in the hockey media, and how much faster they fade away. In October, the Washington Capitals were all but proclaimed the Stanley Cup Champion after a 7-0 start. A series of struggles and coaching change later, and the Capitals are on the verge of an early vacation this season.

Then we had the Boston Bruins, who began November with a 10-game winning streak, and made it 14 wins during 15 games into December. After two straight losses, the Bruins won another seven in a row, and entered the New Year as ‘the greatest team in hockey history.’ They scored a ton of goals while ending 2011 by winning 21 out of 24 games, but then Timmy Thomas decided to skip a White House visit, the Bruins started to lose, the lights in Madison Square Garden went out, and the Bruins seemed to have been forgotten … even though they will almost certainly be the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference for the upcoming playoffs. Why can’t the Bruins win the Stanley Cup? The just won it last year, and the team is pretty similar to that one. However, as far as hockey pundits seem to be concerned, the Bruins are non-existent these days.

And don’t forget the New York Rangers … the same Rangers who have been the top team in the Eastern Conference since prior to Christmas. After a 6-1 stretch in early February, the ticker-tape parade plans began to take shape, but during a 3-6 stretch in March, everybody seemed to abandon the Ranger bandwagon, and fans even started questioning the aptitude of Henrik Lundqvist, and whether or not John Tortorella should keep his job. Based on what Rangers fans have said on Twitter, this team – which is in a dog-fight for the President’s Trophy – is the worst 100+ point team in the history of hockey, and has no business competing in the playoffs. Not one hockey ‘expert’ has recently stated publicly that the Rangers have a chance at all to win the Stanley Cup, which is interesting when considering that they could finish the season with the best record in hockey.

And within all of this ‘hype’ we had the Detroit Red Wings win 21 straight home games to earn invincibility status, the Philadelphia Flyers enjoy a 7-1 stretch in March that included four shutouts for Mr. Universe, and the Vancouver Canucks broke 100 points … again.  Every time something of note happened for these teams, they were declared the favorites to win the Stanley Cup … and every one of these teams at some point recently have been counted out.

With a laundry list of teams declared to be the ‘favorite’ to win the Stanley Cup, what’s a hockey fan to do to make sense of all of it? It’s simple: Stop believing the hype. Pittsburgh’s play during their long winning streak (or winning streaks) was remarkable, especially considering that most of it was without Crosby in the line-up, but it was also a winning streak in January, followed by a winning streak in March, when the most important winning streak has to come in April and May. The Green Bay Packers had one heck of a winning streak this past season as well, and never actually won a playoff game because the regular season has nothing to do with the playoffs. Don’t believe me? Four words for you: The New York Giants. This is why breaking down teams in terms of whether or not they are a Stanley Cup contender is such a flawed practice because if a team is hot on Monday morning, it does not mean they will remain that way by Sunday night.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are absolutely a threat to win the Stanley Cup this season, but if they in fact draw the Philadelphia Flyers for the opening round of the playoffs, they are equally a threat to exit the playoffs after the first round. In fact, if the New York Rangers finish as the #1 team in the East and face the Buffalo Sabres for the first round of the playoffs, is it a safe bet that the Rangers will advance with the way Buffalo and Ryan Miller have played recently? Of course it isn’t.

Ultimately, 16 teams will compete in the post-season, and while some teams enter the playoffs better than others, there is not a single announcer, journalist, or ‘expert’ in the sport who can honestly say which one of them will be the best, and all of this coronation work that we have seen this year is not an exercise in expertise, but instead is the effort of somebody with a public following who took time to look at a team’s schedule, determine why that team is playing well, and declare them to be the odds-on-favorite to win it all.

This is why anybody with an interest in the NHL should be absolutely offended by the recent coverage of the Pittsburgh Penguins. As good as the Penguins have been as of late (despite their most recent struggles), the reality is that the Penguins are one of many ultra-talented teams in the league who have had periods of remarkable success this season, and rough stretches as well. But those covering hockey during recent weeks hyped the Penguins as if they are the beginning of the next great hockey dynasty when they may not finish the season as the highest ranked team in their own Conference, Division, or even their home state.

Of course, if Pittsburgh wins the Stanley Cup, these experts will say they provided exclusive analysis months in advance which gives viewers and readers all the more reason to continue to buy their bridges, and if they lose there will be some sort of cosmic external factor such as a lack of stamina for Sidney Crosby or the lighting at Madison Square Garden. After all, it could not possibly be the case that a team outperformed the hockey media’s Flavor of the Week, could it?

What hockey needs is a way for analysts to cover the league the same way other sports are covered. Sure, the Green Bay Packers received a ton of media attention this season as a Super Bowl favorite, as did the New England Patriots. However, no NFL expert ever took their eyes off of the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Ravens. Even when the Patriots finished the regular season undefeated four years ago, there were other teams afforded spotlight coverage because of the incredible parity in the NFL. In addition, NFL ‘experts’ learned a long time ago that because a team is good during the regular season, it does not always translate into a Super Bowl Championship, and vice versa. If that were the case, the New York Giants would not have won either Super Bowl they captured during the last four years. The NHL has no less parity than the NFL, but this ‘any given Sunday’ dynamic exists within the NFL media, but has been largely ignored by those covering hockey.

Hockey is a different sport in the way it is covered as it seems like when it comes to NHL coverage, there is one team, and then there are the rest. When the Red Wings were unbeatable at home, hockey media could not focus on anybody else, and when Pittsburgh had their run only to then get Crosby back, one would have thought the Penguins had 32 home cities the way they were covered.

The reality is simple: There is no team trophy in sports more difficult to capture than the Stanley Cup. Not the World Cup of Soccer. Not the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Not the Jake Steinfeld Cup (Lacrosse fans will enjoy that one). The Stanley Cup is the gold standard of team grit, determination, depth, and – for lack of a better term – courage during the playoffs. To become the Stanley Cup Champions, a team has to win the 16 most physically and mentally demanding games of their season, after already having played 82 brutal games. Over the course of four rounds of the playoffs, a lot can happen to a team to allow them to go on a shocking deep run, and even more can happen to lead to a ‘favorite’ exiting the playoffs early.  Nobody can predict will happen once the playoffs begin, a point that is especially true in 2012 … and the regular season certainly has little or no bearing on what will happen once play begins in April.

What we do know is there are a lot of items to be covered by hockey ‘experts’ during the regular season, none of which can accurately portray who the real favorite is to win the Stanley Cup. So perhaps it is time for those who cover the NHL to stop believing the hype and focus on the games, and when a team gets hot or cold, simply acknowledge that these things tend to happen over the course of an 82-game season. Otherwise, the NHL might find itself in the uncomfortable position of seeing a team win the Stanley Cup that the public knows little about since they never received the coverage that the ‘favorites’ earned by winning some games here and there during the regular season.

The NHL and its Scheduling Snafus

When it’s the early spring playoff push in the NHL and the New York Rangers face the Minnesota Wild … anything can happen. One team may score more goals than the other. Both teams may score evenly forcing extra time. The game may even end up in a shootout! There could be a hit or two, a fight here and there, and some spectacular work by one or two goaltenders.

You know, the kind of stuff that happens in every hockey game, every season.

The fact that a Rangers-Wild game in late March has no extra appeal than any other hockey game played at any other time of the season is precisely why the National Hockey League has an obligation to take a much closer look at its scheduling practices, and avoid these kinds of match-ups when the season is coming to a close. It’s not that fans do not want to tune in and see the Rangers play the Wild for what could be a crucial game for playoff viability or seeding, it’s just that these kinds of games between two teams from different divisions – actually different conferences in this case – are not nearly as interesting, exciting, or entertaining as games among division rivals when the most is at stake.

While an 82-game schedule requires a large number of games outside of the division and conference for every NHL team, it would also seem that organizing the schedule so the ‘rivalry’ games are later in the season would only benefit ticket sales, ratings, and drama, all of which are good for business. So while the New York Rangers cannot avoid playing the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets as they did this week, they also do not have to play the New York Islanders in October, which they did this season, and play the Jets, Wild, and others in March. Imagine the Rangers had played the Wild in October and had the Islanders on their schedule this past week? Despite the Islanders annual plunge to the bottom of the standings, an Islanders-Rangers game in late March would have a playoff atmosphere that the Rangers-Wild game completely lacked.

In fact, looking at this issue strictly from the Rangers point of view, how is it possible that in 2012, the Rangers last game against the Islanders was on March 11, their last game against the Devils on March 19, and only three of their final 10 games were scheduled against Atlantic Division rivals? These are games that would have the most drama regardless of playoff standings, yet still, the NHL prefers to spread out divisional games over the course of the entire season as opposed to back-loading teams’ schedules with divisional opponents towards the end of the season in order to artificially create late-season drama and playoff intrigue.

This is a very unfortunate scheduling dynamic for the NHL as the league continues its quest to battle with the other major sports in North America for ratings and mainstream attention. Tipping the balance of scheduling towards more divisional games late in the season only creates intrigue, particularly when playoff races are tight. There is nothing that could happen during a Rangers-Wild game that could rival the intrigue of a Rangers-Devils match-up, yet there we were on Tuesday watching the Rangers play a Wild team that few Rangers fans knew anything about. Even the Rangers final regular season game will be a home game with the Washington Capitals. Why? The Capitals and Rangers do not compete in the same division. If the playoff races were extremely tight, there is no way this match-up could rival the theatrics of a game between the Rangers and an Atlantic Division rival. Conversely, even in the worst case that both divisional teams are out of the playoff race, they are still rivals, people will still watch, and the game will still mean something. This past week, if the Rangers, Wild, and Jets were all completely out of their respective playoff races, would anybody have noticed that the games took place?

This dynamic does not only exist with the Atlantic Division, it is a league-wide issue … and a simple one as well: It is completely understandable that each team should play each other at least once. It would be a ridiculous notion to change this format. However, at the same time, the NHL can do its popularity and bottom-line a tremendous favor by playing out-of-Division and out-of-Conference games earlier in the season, and saving a bulk of divisional games for the final six weeks of play. This allows rivalries that already exist to become even stronger, and the games to have meaning, even for teams not in the playoff race.

There is very little the NHL can do to artificially make the games themselves more dramatic, meaningful, or exciting, but creative scheduling is one way to make that happen. If the Rangers played teams like the Wild and Jets in late 2011, and ended the spring of 2012 with a healthy dose of the Flyers, Devils, and Islanders, nobody would complain regardless of standings. Add this dynamic to each of the other five divisions, and what you have are months of rivalry hockey to end the season, only to lead to rivalry hockey in the playoffs. This would make the NHL must-see TV and the hottest ticket in town across nearly all of its home cities.

Get to the Point(s)

It’s time for the NHL to get to the point regarding how league standings are achieved. While a point system is really the only way for the league to determine standings based on the volume of games that go into overtime and shootouts, using the 2011-2012 regular season as an example, the way the league is set up, the point system the NHL currently employs does not accomplish the one thing it is intended to do: Determine the best teams in the league, and rank them in order.

We all know how the current system works. A team that wins in regulation gets two points, a team that loses in regulation gets zero points. A regulation tie gives each team one point, with the opportunity to earn a second point in overtime or the shootout. This system is flawed for two reasons: First, winning in regulation does not have more weight than winning in a shootout, only as part of a tie-breaker system. As a result, if a game is tied during the third period, neither team has much incentive to push for the lead, since aggressive play can expose a team to a goal allowed, and potential to not gain a point. Secondly, unless standings come down to a tie-breaker, winning in the shootout carries as much weight as winning in regulation, so there is no incentive for a team to really push for an overtime win, unless said team is deficient in shootouts.

As a result of all of this, if team A wins 45 regulation/overtimes games and zero shootouts (90 points), they finish behind a team that wins 43 games in regulation/overtime, and seven shootouts (93 points). This is a tremendous flaw in the process since, in theory, a team with 45 actual wins is and should always be better than a team with 43 actual wins, and in the big picture, a skills competition should not carry as much weight as a win.

Looking at the current standings, both the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues should have all but wrapped up their respective conferences. The Rangers have a conference-leading 45 regulation/overtime wins this season. While New York is battling Pittsburgh for Eastern Conference supremacy, the Penguins have seven-fewer regulation/overtime wins this season, but their nine wins in the shootout (compared to four for the Rangers) has allowed the Penguins to keep the points battle close. The West has a similar dynamic, with St. Louis having four more regulation/overtime wins than Vancouver, but the Canucks have three more shootout wins than the Blues, so the points race is tight.

At the end of the day, the NHL simply needs to prioritize the results of games. The shootout is exponentially better than having games end in a tie, like they did prior to the last lockout. But it doesn’t mean shootouts should have the same importance as actually winning a game while hockey is being played. After all, there is a tremendous amount of time and effort that goes into the games than the shootouts, so why not create a system that gives more importance to actually winning a game while hockey is being played?

A starting point would be to simply award three points for a regulation win and zero points for a regulation loss. This dynamic alone would sway the standings more towards teams with greater numbers of regulation wins than wins in overtime or shootouts, and have a system of standings based more on regulation wins than anything else. Beyond regulation, there are a few options. It makes sense for each team to be rewarded with a point for a regulation tie, but how about two more points for an overtime win, instead of one extra point? This, once again, lends more credibility to a win during hockey then a win during a skills competition. If the teams are still tied after overtime, the winner of the shootout gets one extra point, for a total of two points, while the shootout loser ends the evening with one solitary point.

This system does two things: First, it rewards winning hockey games above winning shootouts. Let’s face it, while a shootout is significantly better than a tie, it should not have the same value as winning while the game is being played. Secondly, if the incentive is to play for three points instead of two, during the time of year when every point counts tremendously, the level of play during regulation and overtime will be that much higher. Right now, it is a fact that late during tie games late in the third period, teams coast a bit to make sure they earn a point … and why not? We see this kind of preservation strategy in all sports. However, in under the current hockey point system, if a team such as Pittsburgh or New Jersey is fantastic in the shootout and playing an opponent less successful in the shootout, why would they push during the final minutes of regulation and overtime to score the winning goal? In other words, this new point system rewards winning hockey during the games, and avoids teams playing for a shootout. It’s called a win-win, and the NHL should employ it immediately.

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