Pittsburgh Penguins: 2017 Stanley Cup Champions

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They did it again.  I can’t say I don’t believe it since this was the expected result, yet I kinda don’t want to believe.  Two years in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the Stanley Cup champions.  They are the first team to repeat since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings and the first to do so in the salary cap era.  Two years in a row they’ve faced an opponent in its first Cup Final appearance after years and years of playoff struggles, and both times they won the Cup in six games in said opponents’ buildings.

Nashville put up a fight though.  After two games, both of which were won by Pittsburgh after a brief flurry of goals surrounded by an extended period of Predator domination, this series could have been over.  Instead the Preds stormed back to take the next two by a combined score of 9-2.  But, unfortunately, the offensive injuries came back to haunt Nashville and they went scoreless during their last two games.  And how about that, Matt Murray?  Two shutouts to win the Cup, the second Cup of his as a rookie.  How weird.

Playoff Series
2017-05-29; NSH 3, PIT 5
2017-05-31; NSH 1, PIT 4
2017-06-03; PIT 1, NSH 5
2017-06-05; PIT 1, NSH 4
2017-06-08; NSH 0, PIT 6
2017-06-11; PIT 2, NSH 0
PIT defeats NSH: 4-2
Prediction: Penguins in 6 ✓✓

You know, I haven’t seen much talk about these Penguins as a dynasty.  Since bringing the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury together, they’d been contenders every year and since their first Cup appearance in 2008, it seemed like they could win the Cup each time.  Well, it took until 2015-16 to get a second, but it almost looks like this team will never lose again.

Speaking of pseudo-dynasties, a curious thing has happened, one which I even had an inkling of last year.  Let’s look at the Stanley Cup champion teams between 1994 and 2004 and also those of the last nine seasons:

1995 New Jersey Devils 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins
1996 Colorado Avalanche 2010 Chicago Blackhawks
1997 Detroit Red Wings 2011 Boston Bruins
1998 Detroit Red Wings 2012 Los Angeles Kings
1999 Dallas Stars 2013 Chicago Blackhawks
2000 New Jersey Devils 2014 Los Angeles Kings
2001 Colorado Avalanche 2015 Chicago Blackhawks
2002 Detroit Red Wings 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins
2003 New Jersey Devils 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins

During each eight year span, four teams won the Cup.  Two of them won thrice, one won twice, and one oddball won once.  One team won back to back.  Of the teams that won thrice, one pair was from the east, one pair was from the west.  The teams that won twice were both from the west and both won their first two Cups.

If you want to get weirder, the Cup champions before these years were both Original six.  Even weirder, the Cup Finals before that was Canada versus California.  But yeah, this is pretty strange.  After the parity of the first few years of the salary cap era, we’re seemingly back to where we started.  Hopefully history continues to repeat and somebody wins their first Cup next year, and hopefully they do it without controversy.

Speaking of controversy, I can’t help but think that this series might have ended differently if Colton Sissons’ opening goal wasn’t waved off.  There’s not a lot to be done now, of course, but who knows what might have been.  With the home team winning every game until then, this series was shaping up to be a lot like Vancouver/Boston.  It was a bitterly contested matchup with blowouts, on-ice antics, simultaneously stellar and porous goaltending, a team with a rabid fanbase chasing its first Cup, and a team winning it all on the road while wearing black and yellow.

And like that 2011 series, the ending was anticlimactic as hell.  This is the Cup winning goal.  The dagger with 95 seconds left was hardly even a shot.

It wasn’t just that though.  I feel like, since most of these guys just won last year, this wasn’t special.  The celebrations seemed less enthusiastic.  Maybe it was the lack of a home crowd that did it, I’m not sure.  Maybe I projected my own personal feelings of being let down on the Penguins.  I don’t know.  I was really into this year’s playoffs, shockingly so without a true rooting interest, but this ending just doesn’t do anything for me.

I must salute you, Nashville.  There were many who didn’t realize how great of a fanbase you were, and during the home game broadcasts were we told this fact over and over.  It’s true that it’d always been like this, and luckily for the league as a whole, it will continue.  Your contention window is wide open, so I have no doubt that the Predators are now firmly one of the most marketable teams in the NHL; likely we’ll see much more of them in the spotlight next year.  How about an outdoor game in Tennessee?

I say this every year it seems, but I am excited for this offseason.  The Vegas Golden Knights are finally here — their expansion draft roster will be revealed just 9 days from today.  Also, every NHL team is getting new jerseys, some of which involve rumored overhauls and/or jersey promotions, and each of them will also be revealed on the 21st 20th.  Oh yeah, this Penguins team?  They were built in large part by the man who now runs the Buffalo Sabres.  As if I needed another reason to be hyped about my hometown team’s never-ending rebuild.  I can only hope that what he helped to accomplish in Pittsburgh can be done up north as well.

It’s going to be a fun rest of June.  Time to relax and enjoy the show.

Aural Impressions: Dispatch, America, Location 12

Dispatch is a band I’ve followed for a long time, all the way back to the summer after I graduated from elementary school.  In those years, I associate their music with some of the best times of my life, mainly during the carefree summers of yore.  From the folk-influenced styling of Silent Steeples, to the broader roots- and rock-tinged Bang Bang, the stripped-down jamming of Four-Day Trials, and the diversely electric hodgepodge of Who Are We Living For?, their many sounds are in some way synonymous with a youthful happiness.

They entered my life at a time when the world was full of limitless possibility; when my hometown transitioned from the entire universe to merely its gateway.  I associate Silent Steeples with not-too-far removed memories of Hawaii; Bang Bang with New England summer; Who Are We Living For? with late-summer storms before leaving for college; Brad’s solo album Watchfires with that same time’s sunsets; Pete’s album Untold with freshman year of college.  Part of what makes Dispatch so timeless to me is their long hiatus.  They disappeared from the studio for over ten years, appearing only in a smattering of live shows during the span between albums.  In that time, improbably, their popularity only seemed to soar.

They put out an album in 2012, Circles Around the Sun.  By then, I was just recovered from the worst of times, albeit still living everyday in a psychological hellscape for still months to come.  That album never grew on me.  It felt more like a collection of solo material from each of the three members (some of it was, in fact), and not even their best.  Dispatch fell off my radar again.  Five years later, they’ve returned.  America, Location 12 is their latest offering, is an absolute treat, bringing back the harmonies and melodies I loved so much.  They make extremely good use of acoustic guitars, but also add some new production elements — not too much to distract, just enough to enhance and freshen.  But enough talking about it; let’s dive in, shall we?

  1. Be Gone:  Interesting that an album titled “America…” would being with a Celtic-sounding flurry of guitars, both electric and acoustic, that gives way to a chant-like vocal accompanied by a plodding drum.  The main vocal line is sung by Chad with harmonies from the others buried a bit deeper in the back.  At times it feels almost State Radio-like.  There are keyboards and several tempo changes, abruptly shifting dynamics and a wide range of guitar effects, from clean, to distorted, to a very subtle tremolo in the bridge.  A riff in the early middle of the song changes into 5/4 for four bars out of nowhere.  There are a few false endings, with the last one leading to an extended instrumental outro of guitar effects, blasts of distortion, bass, sustained vocals from Brad, and a closing sound of fading reverb.  Such an outro is definitely a curious way to start.
  2. Only The Wild Ones:  A jangly, syncopated clean guitar forms the basis for the next song. It goes at an apparently arrhythmic 4/4 until the picking straightens up in the chorus.  It’s slow and warm until the percussion comes in, adding a deal of clarity to the rhythm, as well as some additional movement.  It continues to build and build, bringing in muted guitar, a broader range of percussion, and multi-layered vocals — again Chad is here on lead.  The background harmonies are done well, as usual, though it sounds like at times like it’s a multi-tracked Chad instead of the trio.  I like this song.  It gets bigger as it goes, but not too big; overall it’s pretty chill.  Reminds me somewhat of a more energetic combination between “Bang Bang” and “Bullet Holes.”
  3. Curse + Crush:  This one begins with aggressive minor key acoustic guitars and reverberating vocals with a steady, chugging drum beat.  It’s somewhat militant, pushing forward with the strumming driving the rhythm.  The chorus features low vocals, a perfect blend of all three voices.  Like the previous track, this one builds and expands its sonic palette with electrics and broader vocals, bursting into a nice major key chord progression.  All three shine through in the elevated chorus all the way to an abrupt conclusion.
  4. Painted Yellow Lines:  Woah does this song move.  The drums are straightforward and quick, the bass dances, and the guitars lightly nudge it along.  There are handclaps and tambourines, used sparingly, but effectively.  And then it stops as soon as it gets going into a contemplative, vocal-laden chorus.  This cycle goes on and off a few times during the first few minutes.  We flip between indie and classic rock, evoking an effective mixture of the sounds of the 70s and 00s.  As clean electric guitars enter, we’re really pushing along here.  It sounds very unlike Dispatch, yet it works.  At certain times, the the rhythm and melody recall The Beatles’ “Two of Us,” but overall it sounds much more lush and smooth.  Our fourth Chad song in a row, I’m hoping the others take the lead within the remaining seven songs.  “Painted Yellow Lines” is definitely one of the standouts of this album.  It really doesn’t hurt that the lyrics talk about going to the beach; naturally, it fits right in with my existing impression of the band.
  5. Skin the Rabbit:  Crunchy!  I haven’t heard a riff like this on a Dispatch record ever.  Reminds me somewhat of Collective Soul or Soundgarden at first listen.  Vocal duties here are split between Chad and Brad.  At this point I’m starting to think I don’t really know what Pete sounds like anymore.  But this song is quite good.  The vocals are relentless in their push forward during the chorus.  The bass bounces and slides.  The chord progression is suitably dark, given the subject matter.  The bridge is wide and spacey, and by the end I’m getting strong Who Are We Living For? vibes.  Solid song, perhaps my immediate favorite.
  6. Midnight Lorry:  Another folksy riff with multiple acoustic guitars and/or a banjo.  This is the kind of bluegrass influence I didn’t know I’d been missing.  The synergy of the dueling riffs is wonderful.  Chad’s vocals are half-sung, half-rapped during the verses.  There’s a lovely upbeat sung chorus with a slight reggae-rock feel, throwing us back to Bang Bang.  In the middle we’ve suddenly popped into an almost electronic ambient environment — for a hot second it sounded almost like Air or something like that.  The second half is even weirder.  Beyond a repeat of the chorus, there are electronic effects, a dulcimer, an ever-changing key, and rising vocals, leading to a sparkling texture inside a blending choral melody.  It reminds me a lot of The Beatles or Elliott Smith, especially each of their latter works.
  7. Begin Again: Fast picked guitar and a low-sung vocal immediately brings to mind Joshua Radin and his signature style.  In the second verse we get a lead vocal in the verse from Brad, though it’s later shared with Chad.  Pete’s vocals appear in the background, understated and deep; a role he seems to have settled into on this record.  This is a short, hopeful, upbeat song featuring a mandolin, whistling, and a crescendo of brass, which I don’t think we’ve heard since Bang Bang.
  8. Rice Water:  Sublime picked guitars and a solo ride cymbal progress in a twisting, dissonant way, again making me think of mid-career Elliott Smith.  Musically, this album is far less straight-forward than previous efforts by the band.  This song is understated, with occasional falsetto vocals, and injections of energy at the first choruses.  Near the half-way point it leaps into a full-on sprint.  After that, it’s a different song, with full instrumentation, catchy, upfront vocals and a stutter-stepping pre-chorus.  The latter half’s energy is contagious when coupled with the minor chords, while the suddenly slow and drawn out conclusion feels almost psychedelic.
  9. WindyLike:  Bagpipes and a meandering bassline under bright acoustic guitars feels so much like a solo Braddigan song.  And like a solo Braddigan song, this mostly likely my favorite of the album.  It’s catchy, upbeat, and simple, with flourishes to bring up the mood including a stop-and-go rhythm, a soaring chorus with only a slight effectively deployed touch of melancholy, and an exceptionally warm atmosphere.  This is the kind of song that’s been missing almost since all the way back in the day of Silent Steeples, and it might make the perfect sound for a sunny day.  It’s a shame it ends with a fadeout, because the diminishing sound is almost as intriguing a bridge as the rest of the song.  I’d love to hear this song live among a stadium of singing fans.
  10. Ghost Town:  Can I just remark at how good the acoustic guitar playing is on this album?  It doesn’t take the spotlight, it just adds so much to the foundation to these songs.  This song doesn’t differentiate itself a ton from the album’s overall feel, however the later choruses have several overlapping and poly-rhythmic vocal lines from Chad, Pete and Brad.  I love when they pull this off so much, I wish there’d been more of it on this album, though that alone will keep me coming back to this song.
  11. Atticus Cobain:   Sharp electrics and heavy drums make this one a slight throwback to Who Are We Living For?, though again it’s just a bit different.  The crisp strums evoke Gold Motel to me, but in the Dispatch-realm, the verse is definitely influenced by years of Chadwick Stokes material.  Soon, it erupts into a lively sing-a-long chorus more indicative of an album closer, one that takes great pleasure in doing nothing other than celebrating life.  Those later-chorus chords are especially scintillating.   It makes me think of a song like “Railway” that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s riff heavy, uptempo, and over before you know it.

I really like this album.  Upon first listen I was a little disappointed in the lack of standout vocals from either Pete or Brad, the latter of whom has consistently fronted my favorite Dispatch songs, but upon close repeated listening, they’re all definitely there, with their harmonies and backups as tight as they’ve always been.  Unlike Circles Around The Sun, this album is more thematically and sonically cohesive, sounding like a proper Dispatch record as opposed to an album of solo B-sides as mentioned fore.  It’s mostly chill; no one song gets too large, yet they’re all superb quality.  The fact that it, most of the time, fits immediately into their early sound is comforting.  The completely unexpected moments, like the clean energy of “Painted Yellow Lines,” or the entire second half of “Midnight Lorry” serve to keep it fresh and interesting.  Discounting Circles, it feels like it’s been years since I’ve really heard what the band can do when they’re firing on all cylinders.  What more can I say, Dispatch is back.

Stanley Cup 2017, IV: Gold & Silver

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Here we are again: on the one hand, we’ve got a team well established as a winner, with 4 Cups to its name and a handful of proven international superstars on their side.  On the other, we’ve got a team that’s never been here before, has a roster (mostly) full of near-nobodies, and plays in a city the average person doesn’t associate with hockey.  This is how it’s been each year for kind of a while now.

Recently we’ve had Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey in Finals against San Jose, Tampa, Los Angeles, and Los Angeles respectively.  Going back to the Canucks/Bruins series, only the Blackhawks/Bruins series doesn’t really fit this mold.  True the Lightning and Kings each have at least a Cup, but how many regular folks know that (or care for that matter?)

It would have been horrendous for ratings and league popularity to have the Ottawa Senators find a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.  It’s also what I wanted most, with Nashville clinching first.  A Final with two Cup virgins, each from small markets, each franchise born in the 90s, and each with a defensive superstar I’d love to see hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Alas, it was not to be, and in their stead, we’ve got Goliath.  At least there’s a clear underdog here to root for, and root for them I shall.

Penguins vs Senators:  This was entirely expected.  In fact, along with the following series, I predicted this one on the nose.  The Penguins, beaten and bruised, haemorrhaging players all playoffs long, managed to use their intangibles and their star power to narrowly win the war of attrition that is fighting the Ottawa Senators and their stifling system.  It was a rollercoaster of a series, with Ottawa and Pittsburgh exchanging wins before a complete and utterly devastating blowout put the Sens on the brink.  In true pesky Sens fashion, they suffocated their way to a Game Six comeback win, and, surprisingly, turned a boring first period of Game Seven into an all-time legendary game, answering the Pens goals with quick responses all the way to a marathon double-overtime finish.

I picked the Penguins to win, but my heart was screaming for the Senators.  Weird, I know.  I don’t hate this Senators team.  Both Buffalo and Ottawa are so far removed from 2006-07 that it doesn’t feel relevant anymore.  I like Erik Karlsson.  More than anything else, I wanted a new team to win, and I discovered that I’d be happy for the Senators if they pulled it off.  Now, much of that is satisfaction from an indirect blow to the Leafs, but hey, I like to have fun.  On the other hand, it’s probably best the Senators didn’t win.  The NHL is a copycat league, and boy, I don’t want to see this kind of hockey become the norm.  Not again.

Playoff Series
2017-05-13; OTT 2, PIT 1 OT
2017-05-15; OTT 0, PIT 1
2017-05-17; PIT 1, OTT 5
2017-05-19; PIT 3, OTT 2
2017-05-21; OTT 0, PIT 7
2017-05-23; PIT 1, OTT 2
2017-05-25; OTT 2, PIT 3 2OT
PIT defeats OTT: 4-3
Prediction: Penguins in 7 ✓✓

Ducks vs Predators:  We’re in a new era.  For a couple years around the lockout, the Anaheim Ducks more often than not faced the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs.  Half of the time, they’d advance.  Now, they seem to run into the Nashville Predators every other year, but they never win.  In three meetings, the Preds have owned the Ducks 12 wins to 7.  That’s not to say this one was lopsided.  In fact, the team that scored first went on to lose 4 of 6 games.  This was an evenly matched, blow and parry type of series, with the counter being strong enough to overpower the initial attacker.  This was a feisty battle, which is expected with these Ducks, having usurped the role of the NHL’s bullies from a combination of Vancouver, Boston, and Philly.  The Predators were somewhat lucky to escape from this series with minimal injuries, though those they did suffer could be crippling; they’re missing their top 2 centers.

For Nashville though, it was their insane depth that carried them through Anaheim.  With an all-time great defensive line, albeit with Anaheim’s in 2nd right behind them, a host of young wingers (hello, Milwaukee Admirals) and the continued absolutely stellar play of Pekka Rinne, they simply outmatched the Ducks.  Any other team, perhaps, and the Stanley Cup is the Ducks to win.  With a shaky goaltending performance from Jonathan Bernier and the young John Gibson out with injury, it’s hard to imagine the Ducks having an answer to four lines of onslaught from the Preds, but weaker netminding has won Cups.  The Ducks, somehow, seem to have a wide open Stanley Cup window, despite an aging core and old-school coach.  They’re filled to the brim with young talent that, in a few years, might just give Southern California another Cup.

Playoff Series
2017-05-12; NSH 3, ANA 2 OT
2017-05-14; NSH 3, ANA 5
2017-05-16; ANA 1, NSH 2
2017-05-18; ANA 3, NSH 2 OT
2017-05-20; NSH 3, ANA 1
2017-05-22; ANA 3, NSH 6
NSH defeats ANA: 4-2
Prediction: Predators in 6 ✓✓

A newbie and a repeat appearance.  This should be good, no matter what happens.


Advanced stats herein are taken from March 1st through the end of the third round, with the rankings being among the two teams remaining.

 

C4. Nashville Predators vs M2. Pittsburgh Penguins:  This will be fun.  As I alluded to above, this is a real David vs. Goliath story.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions looking to become the first team to repeat since 1998.  They’re also making their third return trip to the Final in their history, which is weird — the Penguins only seem to make the Final in pairs of seasons.  The Nashville Predators are the first lowest-ranked seed to make the Stanley Cup Final, and are making the franchise’s first appearance as well, having previously never even played for a Conference Championship.

The thing about hockey is, though, that this is far more even of a match-up than it appears when comparing each franchise and their histories up to and including this past regular season.  The Predators have steamrolled their way to this point, losing just four games; the Penguins made easy work of their nearby interstate rivals, while getting into seven game slugfests with their next two opponents.  Looking at how banged up each team is, their deficiencies balance out:  Nashville has no center depth, while the Penguins are in shambles on the back end.  They’ve also deployed both of their goaltenders to decent results, as Matt Murray returned from a long injury from round one.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Pekka Rinne has held fort for three rounds — we haven’t seen a sniff of Juuse Saros.  The Predators wingers are a deep collection of NHL vets and nobody rookies, whereas the Penguins are looking at promoted depth at this point.  To look at positions of strength, you see the Nashville blue line being dominant and as previously mentioned, in a class of its own.  In Pittsburgh, you’ve got the all-star one-two punch of Crosby and Malkin.  The Preds had done a great job of shutting down others’ offensive talents — Kane, Tarasenko, Getzlaf — but, I said the same of the Sharks last year.  The Penguins were just too quick to counter.  If Pekka Rinne stands on his head, the Penguins are toast.  If Crosby and Malkin play like, well, like they have been, then the Predators have a tough road ahead.  I like the Predators and I’m rooting for them.  The city deserves a Cup.  P.K. Subban deserves a Cup.  I want to see Mike Fisher (or proxy captain) hand it off to Pekka Rinne in full goalie gear.  I want a Cup champion wearing a color other than black or red.  I want a new team to win a Cup.  It’s about time.

That said, Penguins in six.  Yeah, they’re going to repeat.  I picked against them last year because of what my heart said; I won’t make that mistake again.

Power Play%
NSH: 13.7%
PIT: 26.8%

Penalty Kill%
NSH: 82.4%
PIT: 81.7%

5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
NSH: 52.10%
PIT: 46.71%

PDO
NSH: 102.27
PIT: 101.54

Notable Injuries
NSH: Kevin Fiala, Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher
PIT: Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist

Season Series
2016-10-22; PIT 1, NSH 5
2017-01-31; NSH 2, PIT 4
NSH: 1-1-0
PIT: 1-1-0

Nothin’ but gold, baby.  In about two weeks, we’ll see a team decked out in gold lift the ultimate silver prize, the Stanley Cup.  And, shortly after that, the NHL will welcome another gold team to the party — the Vegas Golden Knights.  This seems less than unintentional, now that I put it all out there…

Final Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins:  1 — NSH, OTT
Cup Champions since 2006:  1 — PIT (’09, ’16)
Longer (or, only) Cup drought:  NSH — 17 seasons

Just like last year, our final two teams’ logos are facing each other in battle, though I think they look far more intense this time.  Here’s hoping for a different result than before.