The Miracle on Ice 35 Years Ago

Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. hockey team faced off against the Soviet Union in the medal round of the Lake Placid Olympics. Few expected the untested American squad to challenge the defending champion Russians, but during a match played in the shadow of the Cold War, they made three successive comebacks and pulled off an astonishing 4-3 victory. Led by coach Herb Brooks, the underdog Americans went on to triumph in their final game, sealing one of the most unlikely gold medal runs in Olympic history.

Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory of the Soviet Union on February 22, 1980. (Credit: Steve Powell/Getty Images)

By February 22, 1980, the U.S. hockey team had already become the surprise story of the Lake Placid Olympics. They had blazed their way through the early stages of the competition, tying with a highly touted Swedish team before scoring four straight wins. Coach Herb Brooks’ squad was the youngest Olympic team ever fielded by the United States—nearly all the players were still in college—yet against all odds, they had advanced to the medal round and a showdown with the Soviet Union.

Compared to the American amateurs, the Soviet team was a murderer’s row of seasoned professionals and stars in the making. Their lineup boasted top-shelf talent in wingers Boris Mikhailov and Valery Kharlamov, and they had the world’s best goaltender in Vladislav Tretiak. Like most Russian teams, the 1980 squad made a habit out of scoring early and often, overwhelming opponents with their skating and surgical puck handling. In 20 years, the United States had managed to beat the Soviets only once, when they pulled off an upset win at the 1960 Olympics. Since then, the red-jerseyed juggernaut had won gold in four straight winter games.

Only two weeks earlier, coach Brooks’ U.S team had received a 10-3 drubbing from the Soviets during an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden. “It was hard to even warm up,” USA winger John Harrington later told author Wayne Coffey. “We weren’t just playing when the game started. We were watching them play, and by the time we felt like we belonged on the ice with them, it was 8-0.” The New York Times later wrote that the Americans appeared “disorganized and outclassed” during the defeat, but Brooks took the rout in stride. “Sometimes a good kicking is good for a quality athlete and a quality team,” he quipped.

Team USA coach Herb Brooks (Credit: Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

If anyone in hockey knew the value of a “good kicking,” it was Herb Brooks. A former Olympian—he was the last man cut from the 1960 U.S. squad—Brooks was notorious for his demanding and often ruthless coaching style. After whittling his Olympic team down to its final roster in 1979, he had stretched the players’ bodies to the limit with a battery of practice matches and lung-busting skating marathons. He had a particular penchant for wind sprints, which the players endured so often that they nicknamed them “Herbies.”

Brooks’ methods were often brutal, but they were also effective. The team that met the Soviets on February 22 was in peak physical condition, and they had learned to play in an elegant, Russian-inspired style that emphasized possession and crisp passing along with crunching body checks. Before the Americans entered the rink, Brooks addressed them in the locker room. “You were born to be a player,” he said. “You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

Shortly after 5 p.m., the puck dropped in front of 8,500 flag-waving spectators at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center. The Soviets started the game strong, buzzing through the American defensive zone and leveling several shots at goaltender Jim Craig’s net. After 9 minutes, winger Vladimir Krutov deflected the puck into goal to give the Russians a 1-0 lead. The Americans answered only 5 minutes later, when Minnesota native Buzz Schneider scored off a stunning 40-foot slapshot. The Soviets later restored their advantage through Sergei Makarov, and Craig was forced to make several saves as the clock wound down. The Russians looked set to head into the break with the lead, but with only a second left in the first period, U.S. center Mark Johnson pounced on a rebound and drove the puck past goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. The match stood level at 2-2.

“I’ve never, ever experienced that kind of emotion and the kind of adrenaline rush that I felt in that room after the first period,” forward Eric Strobel later told Wayne Coffey. “It was like your skates weren’t even touching the ground.” The score unnerved Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov, who made the rash decision to pull the world-renowned Tretiak and replace him with Vladimir Myshkin in goal. His team came out in the second period looking for blood. After only 2 minutes, they reclaimed their advantage after a shot from Alexander Maltsev rang off the post and into the American net. The Soviets besieged Craig’s goal for the next several minutes, forcing him into a flurry of sparkling saves. By the time the period ended, the Russians held a 3-2 lead. They had outshot the Americans by a total of 30-10.

A nervous silence descended on the arena as the third and final period began. Time was slipping away, and it felt like an eternity since the Americans had last threatened Myshkin’s goal. Relief came after 8 minutes, when Mark Johnson caught up to a loose puck and blasted it between the pipes for his second goal of the night. Only a minute and a half later, team captain Mike Eruzione came off the bench and immediately hammered a 25-foot shot past Myshkin to make it 4-3. The stadium roared back to life. “Now we have bedlam!” ABC television announcer Al Michaels yelled into his microphone.

The U.S. team had their first lead of the night, but there were still 10 agonizing minutes left to play. The Russians began skating and passing with renewed urgency, dancing past the hard-checking Americans and firing shot after shot at Craig’s goal. “Play your game,” Brooks yelled as his players defended for their lives. With only a few seconds to go, the crowd began counting aloud with the clock, howling “5…4…3…” in a single voice. When the final horn sounded, the arena erupted in jubilation. “Do you believe in miracles?” an awestruck Al Michaels yelled over the din of roaring fans. “Yes!”

The American bench stormed the ice, piling on goaltender Craig before lifting their sticks in a salute to their crowd. The Russians could only look on in stunned amazement. “I just watched how they were, young guys, smiling over what they do on the ice,” Soviet forward Makarov later told Coffey. “It was more than hockey for those guys. We were happy for them.” Noticeably absent from the festivities was coach Herb Brooks, who had disappeared down the tunnel after the match ended. He later admitted he’d retreated to the locker room to cry tears of joy.

Team USA celebrates on the medal podium after winning the gold with a victory over Finland on February 24, 1980. (Credit: Robert Riger/Getty Images)

When news of the win hit the streets—the game was televised on tape delay—Americans broke into a spontaneous national celebration. Motorists honked their horns at one another. Strangers hugged. Bar patrons screamed themselves hoarse and belted out renditions of “God Bless America.” The political implications of the response were impossible to ignore. The United States and the Soviet Union were still embroiled in the Cold War, and President Jimmy Carter was soon to announce an American boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow as protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. To many, the American upset was more than just one hockey team beating another—it was a victory in an ideological struggle. Even Herb Brooks, who had done his best to keep politics out of his locker room, couldn’t resist commenting. “It just proves our life is the proper way to continue,” he told President Carter during a post-game phone call.

In the midst of all the fanfare, many momentarily forgot that the U.S. team still had to play one more game against Finland to secure the gold medal. In that final match, the American amateurs once again pulled off a come-from-behind victory, scoring three third period goals to triumph 4-2. For the team—more than half of whom would later play in the NHL—the gold medal was proof that their “miracle” victory over the Soviets had not been a fluke. “We knew we were younger,” Mark Johnson told the New York Times, “we knew we could outskate them, we knew we were going to break our butts to beat ‘em. And we did.” Defenseman Mike Ramsey was even more blunt. “Maybe we overachieved,” he later said. “But we were a damn good hockey team.”

Corsi PDO and Fenwick: 3 hockey stats you need to know

Hockey has a lot of numbers, and some are much better than others when it comes to evaluating the play on the ice.

We already discussed four statistics that you should probably forget about, so now it’s time to move on to the numbers you should know, all of which could be considered hockey’s version “advanced” statistics. But don’t let that name fool you, there is a reason the quotations are there — hockey’s advanced statistics really aren’t all that advanced.

They’re not only quite simple and easy to track, but if you can grasp the concept behind plus/minus (and every hockey fan can) then you’ve already nailed the basic concept behind Corsi and Fenwick.

Corsi

What it is: It’s just like plus/minus, only instead of counting goals for and against it counts total shot attempts for and against. Goals, saves, shots that miss the net, and shots that are blocked. Like most of hockey’s newer stats it is named after the person that brought it to prominence, and in this case it was Buffalo Sabres goalie coach Jim Corsi who was looking for a way to measure the workload his goalies had to face during a game. The thinking being that every shot attempt, whether it reached its intended target or not, required a reaction from the goalie.

Along with that, it’s also a pretty good measure of puck possession and how much time a team or player is spending in each end of the ice. A player or team with a high Corsi is going to be spending more time in the offensive zone on the attack, while a player with a negative Corsi is going to be trying to defend and is constantly chasing the puck.

The NHL no longer publishes zone times in its box scores, so this is probably the best measure we have for determining puck possession.

Why it matters: Possession and the ability to have the puck more than your opponent is a vital part of winning championships in hockey. It also has more predictive value and is more repeatable than plus/minus which is heavily impacted by goaltending and luck. Teams and players have an impact on the number of shots they generate, but they don’t always control how many of those shots or which ones go in the net or stay out of the net.

Still, It’s not perfect. When it comes to individual players, a players usage and his role needs to be taken into account. A player that is put into defensive roles (starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone and against better competition) is probably going to see his Corsi numbers take a hit, especially when compared to a player that plays softer minutes (more offensive zone starts, going up against weaker competition).

There is also the fact that some players, no matter how good they are at advancing the play from their own end of the ice into the offensive end of the ice, just don’t have the type of scoring ability (the shot or the ability to find the open spaces in the offensive zone) that can consistently turn it into goals.

If you were to look at the 2013-14 season and say that Brad Marchand is having a better season than Sidney Crosby because he has a better Corsi number you would be wrong. But if you said that Marchand is a good, valuable two-way player that helps his team drive possession and keep the puck out of their own end of the ice, that would be pretty accurate.

FenClose

What it is: To understand FenClose we first must understand what Fenwick is. And just what is Fenwck? Well, it’s pretty much the same thing as Corsi, only it removes blocked shots from the equation. Why remove blocked shots? Because shot blocking is something that is a skill that players can directly impact.

From there, we can break it down to FenClose, which is the percentage of unblocked shot attempts a team takes in a game when the score is close (within one goal or tied). Look at it this way, if Toronto and Montreal are playing and the two teams combined to take 100 unblocked shot attempts with the score close, and Toronto had 38 of those attempts, Toronto would have a FenClose percentage of 38 percent.

Why do we care if the game is close? Because when teams get ahead or behind by two or more goals they tend to change the way they play (even if it’s not always intentional), especially as it gets to be later in the game. A team that has a two-or three-goal lead in the third period is going to play a more passive, careful game than a team that is trailing by the same margin. When the game is close, or even tied, teams are playing more within their system and it’s a better reflection of their true talent level.

All of this is referred to as score effects.

Last week’s Carolina-Columbus game, where Carolina took a 3-0 lead to the third period, is a good example of score effects at work. Any lead after two periods greatly increases your chances of winning, but a three-goal lead at that point is one that you can usually put in the win column, and Carolina played that way, completely taking its foot off the gas. Every time the Hurricanes hit the red line with possession of the puck they simply dumped it into the offensive zone and retreated back in an effort to play it safe and not make a mistake. As a result, Columbus, which was in desperation mode and trying to fire shots at the net from every angle, ended up outshooting Carolina 19-0 over the final 20 minutes. If the game is closer neither teams plays that way and the shot numbers don’t look anywhere near as lopsided over the final 20 minuets.

We have FenClose data as far back as the 2007-08 season. Since that time seven of the 12 Stanley Cup Final teams (including four of the six champions) have finished the regular season in the top-5 in FenClose, while only one team (the 2007-08 Penguins, which lost the Final to Detroit) finished lower than 14th (they were 27th and lost to a Red Wings team that was No. 1).

PDO

What it is: Remember when I mentioned luck back in the Corsi section? Well, if there was ever a way to measure whether a team or player has been lucky or unlucky, PDO might be it. And it’s not all that hard to figure out as it’s simply adding even-strength save percentage and shooting percentage. If nothing else, it’s a quick and easy way to look for teams and players that are maybe riding a hot streak and playing over their talent level over a short period of time, or teams that are riding a cold streak and are due to bust out.

But don’t some players and teams shoot at a higher percentage than others, you’re probably asking? Of course they do. Phil Kessel is going to score on a higher percentage of his shots than Craig Adams is. Alex Ovechkin will have a higher shooting percentage than Daniel Winnik or any other third-or fourth-liner. But if a player that is an eight or nine percent shooter for his career and suddenly has a season where he shoots at 18 or 20 percent, it’s a good bet that guy is going to see his numbers come crashing back down the next season.

It works the other way as well. A couple of years ago Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf had a terribly unlucky season offensively. A 12 percent shooter for his career, Getzlaf finished the 2011-12 season by scoring on just 5 percent of his own shots while the Ducks, as a team, scored on just 7 percent of their total shots with him on the ice, leading to one of the worst seasons of his career when it came to goals and assists. It was also the worst season of his career percentage wise with a career-low 977 PDO. It was an outlier in his career in every way, and a season that was crushed by bad luck.

Once his luck changed over the following two seasons he’s been back to producing at an All-Star pace.

On a team level, there is very little difference in team shooting percentage when it comes to the best and worst teams. Over the past six years (combined) the Pittsburgh Penguins have the best 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league at 8.71 percent (and given the talent they’ve had on the roster it probably shouldn’t be a surprise they’re at the top of the list). The worst shooting percentage over that stretch? New Jersey at 7.20. That means over a six-year stretch the difference between the best shooting team and worst shooting was less than two percent. For every 1,000 shots on goal, you’re probably looking at an additional 15 goals between the best and worst team. It could definitely be the difference between a couple of wins over the course of a season, but it’s not a huge gap.

That is why shot volume (Corsi, FenClose) matters so much.

Where can you find these stats? Any number of resources around the Internet, including Behind The Net, Extra Skater, and Hockey Analysis.

Advanced Luck Are NHL’s PDO Leaders Poised for a Fall?

By James Conley
NHL Expert

Hockey’s book of acronyms is getting thicker, thanks to a rapidly-growing interest in the use and application of advanced statistics.

Popular among that list of alphanumeric madness is PDO, a pretty simple calculation that attempts to identify a maddeningly complicated notion — how lucky or unlucky can a team be over the course of a season, and is there really a way to capture the idea of fortune?

Named after the online handle of its creator, PDO is the addition of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage at even strength. The mean PDO is 100 — a save percentage equal to one’s shooting percentage.

Given a great enough sample size, the disparity between a team’s shooting and save percentages become a pretty accurate indicator of how good, or lucky, that team is.

So what separates good luck from good hockey?

Penguins Predators NHL -

Caption:NASHVILLE, TN – MARCH 04: Goaltender Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators protects the net during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Bridgestone Arena on March 4, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images).

1 . A Better Explanation of PDO

Like most of hockey’s new math, PDO can be a tough one to wrap your head around at first. There are, however, several good posts floating around to help bring context to the number.

The math itself, as mentioned, is the addition of a team’s even-strength save- and shooting-percentages. All things being equal, that number will add up to 100 (or 1000, if you want to get really fancy with how you distribute your decimal points).

A team or player with a 100 PDO is right about where they belong. Too far above 100, in the 103-104 range, and fortune is figured to be on their side. Several points below, and you have to figure that things will improve going forward.

Here’s the calculus, from Cam Charron at TheScore,

PDO, at a team-level, is the simple addition of shooting percentage and save percentage at even strength. If a team’s save percentage is .927 and they’re shooting at 8.0%, their “PDO” could be counted as 1007, 100.7% or 1.007. If a team’s save percentage is .900 and they’re shooting at 9.4%, their “PDO” would be recorded as 994, 99.4%, or 0.994. There’s no standardized notation for a PDO number.

So, looking at clubs with sky-high PDO, one assumes that their level of play is either 1) good and lucky at an unsustainable rate, or 2) good and kind of lucky but not so much of an outlier because they are commensurately good in other areas of the game.

That’s the big idea, and Puckalytics has the PDO leaders as of today, among every other fancy stat you could ever want.

So who are the league’s luck leaders, and should you take any of them to a weekend in Vegas?

2 . Nashville Predators (103.22 PDO)

The Nashville Predators have the league’s highest PDO as of Wednesday morning, according to Puckalytics, and the stat fits their place in the standings — tied for first in the very good Central Division, and three points back of the Montreal Canadiens and Anaheim Ducks for the league points lead.

Nashville has never been a great offensive team, and not even that 9-2 laugher against Toronto is going to bring the averages up. At that, Nashville is 13th in league scoring despite a kind-of-okay power play.

What’s really driving their offense is a great even-strength offense (2.74 goals per game, fourth in the league) and a solid back-end, headed by goaltender Pekka Rinne.

Is it sustainable? Nashville’s 5-on-5 team save percentage is tops in the NHL at .943. That sky-high PDO suggests they’ll be giving up a few more goals at even-strength eventually, but their blue line is too good and their goaltending too reliable to let the defense falter much from their current pace.

3 . Pittsburgh Penguins (102.35 PDO)

Another division leader, Pittsburgh has a pretty favorable luck quotient. That’s being driven by a league-best offense. The Penguins rank first in goals per game and have the league’s most efficient power play. Both have kept them at the top of the Metropolitan Division through all of November.

Their team shooting percentage of 9.01 at even-strength is sixth in the league, suggesting that the goals aren’t so much about luck. Given the team’s high-skill forwards and year-over-year offense dominance, the Penguins can be expected to put up good looking numbers like that 102-plus PDO.

If anything could sink the number, it’s their goals against figures. The Penguins aren’t a poor defensive team by any stretch, but their team save percentage is up this year, .934 at even strength, thanks mostly to a keepaway puck possession strategy and a career year in-the-making from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (12-3-1, 2.09 / .926).

If any part of Pittsburgh figures to regress, it would be Fleury. However, under new head coach Mike Johnston, this best-defense-is-a-good-offense version of the Penguins might be the kind of setting Fleury and the team’s defense needs in order to excel.

4 . Calgary Flames (101.61 PDO)

And here’s where PDO starts to explain good luck.

The Calgary Flames, as we’ve covered in this space before, are a surprise contender early in this season, but may not be by the time the campaign reaches its end.

The Flames finished with draft lottery status a season ago, and their offseason moves didn’t seem to suggest they’d be far removed from that group again this year. However, big seasons from rookie forward Johnny Gaudreau, defenseman Mark Giordano and goaltender Jonas Hiller have the Flames keeping pace in the very competitive Pacific Division.

A high PDO really only points to good luck if the rest of a team’s underlying numbers would otherwise point to poor play and a bad record. In the cases of Pittsburgh and Nashville, the underlying stats are strong.

Not so in Calgary, where the team is being outshot routinely. Their Corsi percentage (all shots attempts for / all shot attempts against) is the second-lowest in the league at 43.8 percent. Only Buffalo currently has a lower share of attempted shots per game than Calgary, and they are on pace for a 55-point regular season.

Calgary’s offense is productive (5th in league scoring), if not necessarily good. Couple that near-league-low shot share with a league-leading shooting percentage (9.69 percent), and writing is on the wall for their fall back to Earth.

Other PDO Notables

Rounding out the top-five PDO teams are the Montreal Canadiens (101.40) and New Jersey Devils (101.33). Montreal, leading the Eastern Conference with 33 points, is a hard read. They have one of the best records in hockey, but their plus-four goal differential is staggeringly low for a team with a 16-6-1 record. New Jersey, struggling to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division, was for two years an advanced-stats darling sunk by bad goaltending and the shootout. They missed two straight postseasons since their Cup run in 2012 despite the good underlying numbers. Now that they’ve addressed those problem areas, the bottom seems to be falling out of everything. The Devils are playing sub-.500 hockey, despite a PDO number that suggests they are benefiting more from the bounce of the puck than being hurt by it. In other words, is a regression in New Jersey primed to see the team really fall out of the race for good? The five-lowest PDO teams as of today? Edmonton, Columbus, Carolina, Washington and Vancouver. That’s three lottery teams, a bubble squad in Washington and a Vancouver team that might be even better than its already-surprising 15-6-1 record.

Winter Olympics vs World Cup of Hockey Which Best Suits the NHL?

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:SOCHI, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 18: National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a press conference on day eleven of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).

 

Since 1998, the Winter Olympics have been hockey’s premier international event, with NHL players joining the rest of the world to compete in the tentpole event of the Games.

The next Winter Games are set to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018. Less than a year removed from the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, there is already discussion about the NHL’s return to the event.

And while it wouldn’t go over very well with a lot of hockey fans and a whole lot of international players, it seems like the NHL is crafting its escape plan from the 2018 Games.

For every good reason fans and players have for attending the next version of the winter games, NHL owners and executives seem to have a counter for staying out.

So what is it that’s keeping the NHL on the fence about its part in the world’s tournament?

The fact that they kind of, sort of might be able to put on a better international tournament on their own.

Maybe.

The World Cup of Hockey

The Olympics aren’t the only international tournament showcasing men’s hockey. Built as a spiritual sequel to the old Canada Cup tournament, the World Cup of Hockey was held twice, in 1996 and 2004, to carry on best-vs-best international hockey.

(The 1996 World Cup was held before the NHL’s first appearance in the Olympic Games in 1998.)

Those tournaments were met with tepid fandom, due mostly to their irregular scheduling and the viability of the NHL as a business in the decade from the mid-90s to mid-2000s (it wasn’t very good).

It has been a decade since the last time the tournament was held, in which time three Winter Olympics (and two Canadian gold medals) have occurred. Momentum is clearly behind the Olympics. A return to the World Cup of Hockey is going to take a total ground-up marketing effort and some format changes by the NHL to become viable, and even at that, it may take two or three tournaments for the World Cup to be viewed as any kind of competitor to the Winter Olympics.

That said, the benefits of a successful World Cup are too rich to ignore.

Bear in mind, the NHL would be the sponsoring organization of a World Cup, where the IOC is the regulatory body (or, the ones who make all the money) of the Olympics.

The benefits of that position aren’t minimal.

  • Television contracts
  • Merchandise sales
  • Gate Receipts
  • Regulation and rules enforcement

Right now, the NHL watches as the IOC collects the benefits of all television deals, merchandising and ticket sales based on the work of players under NHL contract. The league is also left to deal with the IOC’s spotty regulatory work, which has left one NHL player, the Capital’s Nicklas Backstrom, in a bit of a bind.

So what’s the catch?

If you’re the NHL? Not much. A new World Cup means opening wide for all the revenue streams that currently feed the IOC during the Winter Olympics, as well as oversight of the games, the players and the coverage of the event.

Olympic Benefits

The most obvious thing that’s going to keep NHL players participating in the Games is momentum. Since 1998 in Nagano, Japan, NHL players have been participants in the Winter Olympics.

There is tremendous interest from the players to return to the Games, something that is especially true of European and Russian players, some of whom play for teams that challenge Canada and the United States for medals in each iteration of the Games.

Before NHL involvement had been approved for the Sochi Games held earlier this year, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis supported Alex Ovechkin’s intent to play in the Games — whether the NHL would allow it or not.

“If they don’t and Alex still wants to go to the Olympics, I’m going to be honest, I’m going to let him go,” Leonsis continued. “I just think it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him to have something played in Russia.

He’s going to be a torchbearer and it’s very important to him and his family. Who am I to get in the way of him wanting to fulfill that?

The NHL serves itself by maintaining a good relationship with the NHL Player’s Association. Standing in the way of Olympic participation would certainly strain that relationship.

The league was cognizant of that following the 2012 lockout, citing a goal of mending relationships with the players as a reason for approving their play in Sochi.

Of course, there’s a difference between good will and good business.

If it comes down to a battle between the players and league as to Pyeongchang, there’s not much legal ground for the NHLPA to stand on. The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) does not explicitly allow for Olympic participation (the last version did).

That leaves the question of participation up to a league which has shown contentious in dealing with the International Olympic Committee in the past.

Other considerations

– The NHL season is currently shut down for two weeks at the peak of their season while the Games take place. A World Cup would likely be held prior to the NHL season, in August or September. If it primes the season, that’s an added bonus. For the most part, NHL owners don’t want to see their buildings empty for two weeks at the peak part of the year.

– The coming Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea are going to be broadcast at just about the opposite of North American time. Right now, the NHL gets by on Olympic participation by counting on the nearly-immeasurable notion that casual sports fans watch the Olympics, and they might become regular NHL fans if the Olympic product catches their interest. As it is, only media types and people who are already fans will be staying awake to watch live contests in nocturnal hours. That benefit is basically a wash in 2018, if it was even one to begin with.

– The World Cup may not be replacing the Olympics entirely, and if not, what a leverage play by the NHL it will be. The IOC has no need to fear competition with their Games, which of course makes working with them a one-sided gambit from the start. “It is a balancing act,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said. “Part of it depends on how accommodating the [International Olympic Committee] and the local organizing committee and the IIHF are in terms of the arrangements we need to do it.”

That comes back to negotiating, and no one does it better than the NHL. If the NHL confirms the World Cup soon and waits until the last minute to confirm participation or non-participation in the Olympics (as it did in Sochi), they could use that indecision to help sway the IOC into better accommodating the NHL for sending its players abroad. It worked in 2014, and that was without the threat of being replaced by the World Cup.

Imagine what the NHL could wrangle from the IOC with that other tournament ready to replace them?

Parity in the NHL Standings Who’s Going to Last at the Top?

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Caption:UNIONDALE, NY – NOVEMBER 22: Jaroslav Halak #41 of the New York Islanders celebrates a victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 22, 2014 in Uniondale, New York. The Islanders defeated the Penguins 4-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images).

 

An interesting nugget from Grantland’s Down Goes Brown in his Monday column, in which we find that the NHL standings are about as crowded as can be.

A look at the top of the overall league standings today reveals an odd quirk: a six-way tie for first place overall, with three of the four divisions featuring a pair of 34-point teams.

Add it all up and you’ve got nine teams — 30 percent of the league — within a point of first place overall. If you’re a fan of parity, you love the look of the standings right now.

Those teams near the top of the standings won’t be there all year long. Rarely does the President’s Trophy (for the team with the best record at the end of the regular season) come down to a nine-way race. However, of those clubs gridlocked for the league’s best record, it’s hard to imagine that any of them won’t at least be in the mix for a division title when the calendar turns to April.

So, who’s in the mix, and how likely are they to stay there?

The San Jose Sharks Memorial Regular Season Dominance Division

With apologies to the Sharks, who are definitely not a part of this group at 11-10-4 overall, these are the six teams currently tied for the NHL standings lead, with 34 points apiece — Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues.

That’s two apiece from the Metropolitan, Atlantic and Central Divisions.

Incredibly, the Pacific Division is the only group without a team tied in the standings race, despite being routinely selected to be the league’s most competitive division at the outset of the season. In fairness to the Pacific, though, they’ve got two teams within a point of 34 and two others that still figure to break out of their malaise before too long.

In the Metropolitan, the Penguins are continuing their run of 100-point pace seasons in spite of massive roster and managerial turnover last summer. Should they hold to their current pace, the Pens would finish the season with 122 points — the most since the Detroit Red Wings collected 124 standings points in 2006.

While another 100-point season in Pittsburgh would make it six in a row for Pittsburgh (they were on a 123-point pace in the lockout shortened-season of 2012), such a year out of the New York Islanders would be an outrageous standings jump.

Last season, the Islanders were a lottery team. This season, they are on pace for the second-best record in franchise history, and a 100-point finish would be their first since the early 1980s. The offseason additions of Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Jaroslav Halak and others have this team in the thick of things.

The Atlantic, too, should be no surprise. The Tampa Bay Lightning enjoyed the best offseason of any team in the NHL, adding significant pieces to their roster in lieu of a first-round sweep last year, and now that the season is a quarter gone, the results have borne out those good offseason vibes. Tampa Bay is pulling ahead of the Montreal Canadiens who, despite having a share of that league-best mark, have slowed with three straight losses.

The Lightning have an MVP candidate in Steven Stamkos and the Canadiens were two games from a berth in the Stanley Cup Final last season. Their successes are real, and as is especially true in the case of the Lightning, sustainable.

The Central, maybe hockey’s best division from top-to-bottom, has St. Louis and Nashville in the mix. We’ve written about Nashville in this space before, and the Blues have been just a few pieces from making that big next step for some time now. The Blues’ dominance is real, and follows suit with their previous seasons under Ken Hitchcock — the Blues have finished on 100-point paces in every year under Hitchcock, starting in 2011-12.

Is Anyone Going to Fall Off the Pace?

Nashville and New York are the big surprises in this group, but both enjoyed fantastically successful offseason makeovers to what were otherwise talented roster cores. Nashville would be the logical candidate for regression, as they have to keep pace with St. Louis, Chicago and Minnesota in their own division. Despite last season’s troubles, the Islanders have hockey’s worst division to feast upon.

Sure bets in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, where success is the standard, and you can add the Lightning to that group as well — Steve Yzerman’s group is too well-built not to maintain a division-leading pace. And, why not, let’s see the Islanders push the Penguins for first place all season long. John Tavares’ group is as deep as it is talented, hamstrung as they aren’t by the salary cap.

Watch for regression from the Canadiens and Predators, who have built-in threats in their divisions (Boston and Tampa in the Atlantic, Chicago and St. Louis in the Central). Also worrisome are the sky-high PDO numbers for the Penguins and Predators, who’ve been as lucky as they have been good, although even a return towards the mean shouldn’t undo the good work those teams have done to any great extent.

The Jim Kelly Memorial Second-Place Division

These teams are right in the hunt for the league’s best record, although, with respect to former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, they aren’t quite all the way there.

The Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks are all tied at 33 points apiece, second-overall in the league standings behind the six clubs above. The Ducks, reigning champions of the Pacific Division, are about where everyone expected them to be.

But Vancouver? Detroit?

Those are two of the biggest surprise contenders this season, by a mile. Vancouver underwent a heavy revision this offseason, trading center Ryan Kesler to the aforementioned Ducks while retooling all three phases of their roster, in addition to coaching and managerial shuffling.

Vancouver made the Cup Final in 2011, and have fared a little worse in every season since, missing the playoffs entirely last season, the first (and last) under head coach John Tortorella. New GM Jim Nill and Team President Trevor Linden had a good-looking offseason plan in place. But this kind of turnaround was on no one’s radar — not with Ryan Miller coming off a playoff letdown with the Blues, not with the Best We Could Do return on the Kesler trade, and not with the Sedin twins growing another year older.

Detroit, like Vancouver, was supposed to be playing out the string on its Cup window. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were injured as often as not, and aging all the while. The team couldn’t lure a free agent defenseman into town if Nicklas Lidstrom himself was the waiting defense partner. Mike Babcock was supposed to have one foot out the door.

Instead, the Red Wings are knocking on the door in the Atlantic, having won four straight and 14 of 24 overall. Their plus-13 goal differential is third-best in the Eastern Conference, and things have certainly stabilized compared to last year, when they lost 400 man-games to injury.

Is Anyone Going to Fall Off the Pace?

Anaheim is no surprise in this group, even as injuries and illness have depleted their blue line and goaltending tandem.

Detroit, one figures, is in some trouble. The Red Wings still aren’t nearly as deep as the teams ahead of them in the Atlantic, and the Boston Bruins are quietly starting to right their fourth-place ship.

Vancouver, too, has too much competition within the division to maintain their pace. Playing in the West is tough enough, the Pacific even tougher. If the Sharks can rebound from their dismal start, they’ll challenge Vancouver’s spot in the standings. That’s going to go double when the Kings turn their game on sometime this Spring.

The Red Wings and Canucks won’t be in the President’s Trophy mix by the end of the season, and probably not in the division title hunt, either, but both should be squarely within in Wild Card position, at the very least, by the time the playoffs return.

Tomorrow, a look at the clubs who figure to muscle their way back into the mix.