Too little, too late for NHL rule changes

Savard.jpgThis is obviously the biggest story of the week and when all is said
and done the 2009-10 NHL season will go down as the “year of the head
shot”.

What is most frustrating about the entire situation is the
fact that the victim of the latest dirty hit — and there’s no doubt in
my mind it was dirty, I don’t care what the NHL says — is at home and
is still suffering from some significant concussion symptoms.

At
least there were some steps taken in the right direction this week with
the GM’s proposing a rule change that would make hits like Matt Cooke’s
illegal. What’s most disturbing however is the fact that all hits to the
head will still not be penalized — but you have to wonder just how far
the NHL can go down that path.

There’s no doubt that the NHL is
an extremely fast and physical league and that hits to the head will
happen, and not all of them are dirty hits. Sometimes accidents happen
and player are going to get seriously hurt, no matter what the NHL does.

But
the point here isn’t to just blindly outlaw all high hits; we’re
talking about protecting NHL players from the ones that have no regard
for their opponents on the ice. It’s ice hockey, I realize that the
point of the game is not only score but to punish the players on the
other team with brutal checks along the boards and in open ice. My point
is that there exists a middle ground where the league can protect
players from serious injury while maintaining the physicality that makes
the sport so much fun.

Marc Savard will most likely not return to
the ice this season. He’s sleeping most of the day, and it’s going to
take him a long time to recover from such a severe concussion. I’m not
someone who believes that the offending players should be suspended for
as long as the victim is injured — there are just too many variables  involved — but the fact that Matt Cooke escaped without punishment is a
travesty.

The NHL is facing a PR nightmare over this incident but
the sad truth there is nothing they could do about this latest hit.
Technically, Cooke’s hit was legal in the eyes of the NHL and the fact
that Mike Richards was not suspended for a similar hit earlier in the
season handcuffed the NHL on what they could do.

So now we have
the league being reactionary instead of proactive when it comes to the
safety of the players, and it’s making the NHL appear even more middling
than they were before. This is a league that has struggled with
mainstream success ever since the lockout five years ago and these incidents do nothing but set the NHL back from whatever progress
they may have made.

There is an irrational fear that supporters of
stricter rules and punishments — like myself — want to turn the NHL
into a sport that is “un-manly” or “wimpy” and abandons the physicality
that sets it apart from all others. That’s not anywhere close to being
the case; in fact, I loved good physical lockdown hockey where goals were
at a premium and there wasn’t a penalty called every 4 minutes for
touching an opponent with your stick.

The issue at hand is the
safety of the players. The cold reality is that players are faster,
bigger and carry more power than ever before and you can’t deny the
increased amount of serious head injuries is alarming.

The NHL is
on the right track, but we shouldn’t have had to wait for one of the
NHL’s best players to be sitting at home with a severe concussion before
anything was done about it.

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    Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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    ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

    Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round.

    Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

    “We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

    In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

    This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

    “You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

    What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

    Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

    “We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

    Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

    Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

    The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

    Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

    That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

    “It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

    NOTES: Capitals RW Tom Wilson left practice when he took a puck off the left ankle. Trotz called it a stinger and said he was fine. … Ovechkin missed the second half of practice after breaking a skate. … C Lars Eller didn’t skate, with the team calling it a maintenance day.

    AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

    More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

    Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

    Karlsson explains how Senators plan on getting to Lundqvist

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    GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.

    The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.

    “Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.

    “I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”

    This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency – highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.

    He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage – career worsts for the latter two.

    However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career postseason shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves – regular season or playoffs – in an overtime loss in Game 2.

    Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage – both the best among all goalies. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.

    “The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 postseason games.

    “It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”

    He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec‘s backhand follow attempt in close.

    “I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was `don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”

    Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).

    “They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”

    Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenseman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.

    “You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”

    Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.

    “We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”

    Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.

    Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

    More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

    Ducks have better chance to slow McDavid with healthier defensemen

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    Trying to stop – or at least inhibitConnor McDavid is likely to be a conundrum for opposing teams for, oh, the next decade or two. Still, it helps matters to at least be near 100 percent.

    The Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Calgary Flames (a team with some serious firepower on the blueline and also magician-forward Johnny Gaudreau) in four games despite serious limitations on defense. It seems like they’re getting closer to being their full-fledged selves, as the team website revealed that Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler seem likely to play in Game 1. Also, Sami Vatanen is getting better.

    Much has already been made about the Ducks matching up Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano against McDavid, at least when they can.

    “We’ll start looking at things and try to come up with some sort of plan,” Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s dynamic. I think with how good he is sometimes you look [past Draisaitl]. Not that he flies under the radar, but he’s a player you have to keep an eye on, too.”

    Still, Randy Carlyle faces some interesting choices as far as which blueliners to send out against McDavid.

    Fowler is more known for his offensive skills, but his skating ability makes for an intriguing option, at least if he’s close to 100 percent. Lindholm might not get much press just yet, but he’s quietly building a resume as one of the league’s best defenders. It’s a little tricky with them being even somewhat slowed by injuries, though.

    For what it’s worth, the Ducks had some success against McDavid in 2016-17, limiting him to zero goals, one assist and just two shots in three regular-season games.

    It’s dangerous to put too much weight on such stats, especially considering the small sample size. The bottom line is that Carlyle gets the final change for Games 1 and 2, a potentially key advantage against McDavid and the Oilers.

    You know, assuming there’s even an ideal matchup for Anaheim.

    Travis Hamonic, Wayne Simmonds are up for Foundation Player Award

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    New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic and Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds are skilled players, but they’re the two finalists for the NHL’s Foundation Player Award for their work off the ice.

    NHL teams submit their nominations for the award, which is given to the “NHL player who applies the core values of hockey – commitment, perseverance and teamwork – to enrich the lives of people in his community.”

    The winner gets $25K to donate to their charity of choice.

    Considering all the time players spend giving back, Hamonic and Simmonds both likely deserve recognition.