Attendance worries in Columbus and Phoenix come into question again

It wouldn’t be a day in the NHL if there wasn’t more idle chatter about attendance problems in select NHL cities. Today, both Columbus and Glendale, Arizona each get put through the wringer courtesy of a couple different columns today. The Columbus Blue Jackets have been noticed on a couple of occasions this year for having embarrassingly low single-game attendance marks this season. Stu Hackel of the New York Times, courtesy of Habs Inside/Out took a look at what’s going on in Columbus and says that winning might help solve the problems there but there’s always a catch.

Even the current problems in Columbus haven’t caught the team by surprise. In September, team president Mike Priest admitted he expected some low crowds in the early going, even as low as 8.500.

Columbus specifically has some problems the others don’t. Unlike Tampa Bay, Dallas and Phoenix, they are not a big market. As Derek Zona points out on his blog Copper and Blue, Columbus is “the 24th-largest market in the NHL, and its rank of 21st out of 24 U.S. markets.  It’s small, economically-speaking, compared to even places like Pittsburgh (27% larger), St. Louis (43% larger), and Minneapolis (115% larger).  Overall entertainment dollars aren’t as plentiful in Columbus, and those dollars certainly aren’t going to chase terrible teams, and over the last ten years, the Blue Jackets can’t be considered anything else.”

Which brings us to another point [TSN’s Bob] McKenzie made on Team 990, namely, that when a team starts losing (or in the Blue Jackets case, almost never wins), there comes a point when the fans start to abandon a team and they may not come back even if the team reverses its fortunes.

In Columbus’ case, they’ve been a “winner” just once in their ten years in the NHL and that season ended with a four-game sweep in the playoffs at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. That’s the sort of thing that can help grow a rivalry with a divisional opponent, except the Blue Jackets built off of that season by missing the playoffs the following year. Having to compete for the ticket dollar with Ohio State University football and basketball  doesn’t help matters at all either.

In Arizona, things there are well documented and for many very embarrassing to see, but the Coyotes are in a similar situation to that of the Blue Jackets with the glaring exception of not having an ownership to lend stability to their situation. The Coyotes are always mentioned as candidates for relocation because of the ownership being in flux and that sort of thing wears down on the local support. As Nicholas Cotosonika of Yahoo! Sports shares with us, even some of the players are a bit baffled as to why there hasn’t been more immediate support this year for the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena.

“I’m not sure if you had an owner or not if that was going to change the fact that you had 6,700 people (at that game),” said winger Ray Whitney, a 19-season NHL veteran who signed with the Coyotes in the offseason. “I don’t know what could be the cure or the fix for it. Winning? They won last year, and this year they had 6,700 at a game the other night. It’s just the way it is, I think.”

Whitney then added this exasperated tidbit.

“It’s frustrating,” Whitney said. “Especially with the season they had last year, you’d like to see that increase. But what can you do? There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Whitney is new to the game in Arizona and having this distinct lack of support from more fans in Glendale and Phoenix can create a bit of a culture shock. While some Coyotes veterans, like Shane Doan, are used to it by now, it’s the sort of thing that can get on your nerves a bit. Having 6,700 dedicated fans is great, but if you’ve got a 17,000+ seat arena it can feel like no one is watching.

The NHL and others in Arizona are convinced that getting a new owner in place that’s committed to staying in Arizona will turn things around with the locals. After all, who wants to plunk down NHL-level ticket prices for a team that might end up leaving town? Not too many people in a tight economy are that willing to shell out the bucks and you can’t fault them for that.

That said, a big deal was made during the playoffs to play up the support the Coyotes finally had after winning all season long and that the team had turned the corner as far as winning over the locals. So far this year, that claim can’t be made after having miserable turnouts for three out of four home games in Arizona this year, including 6,706 for a game against the Kings.

Can winning cure all the ills in Glendale and Columbus? It’s tough to say, but if both teams can stay strong all year perhaps we’ll get an accidental case study to see how things can play out and if both Columbus and Glendale are indeed worthy of having NHL teams for the long run.

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

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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.