NCAA hockey going with new “super conferences” a dangerous route to take

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With college hockey becoming more well known to mainstream sports fans with the proliferation of the Frozen Four and more games appearing on cable TV, many people around the NCAA feel like it’s their time to seize the day. The first shot in this happened when Terry Pegula gave Penn State $80 million to help start the varsity program there that will begin play in 2012.

Penn State joining the varsity ranks helped give rise to the Big Ten Conference in hockey, a group that will pull teams out of both the CCHA and WCHA to form their own little party as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State will team up with Penn State to form their own league.

That drastic move that awaits in a few years meant that the WCHA lost two of their biggest earning and drawing teams and the CCHA essentially lost their lifeline with the two Michigan schools. Everyone else that will be left behind in 2013-2014 when the Big Ten comes to order would be left trying to figure out what in the world they’re going to do. As it turns out, six schools figured things out on their own and will form a “super conference” of their own that will see North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, and Miami University form the Collegiate Hockey Conference that will start in 2013-2014 as well.

Left on the outside looking in are the rest of the teams from the soon-to-be-defunct WCHA and CCHA (St. Cloud, Mankato State, Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage; Alabama-Huntsville is already independent) with a future that is uncertain at best. Ryan Lambert from Yahoo’s! Puck Daddy says that the start-up of this new conference along with the Big Ten Conference means that pain is on the way to those who are left behind.

What they’ve essentially done is left other programs for dead. Far be it for me to advocate a welfare system in college hockey, but what the hell, one has existed for years anyway. The NCAA has been giving autobids to shall-we-say undeserving conferences for years, and how much good has it done them? Next to none. Teams and conferences have been folding left and right in the last few years, and no one seems particularly concerned about the state of the sport at the college except for people who want to write weepy eulogies to teams no one cared about at relatively small schools that can’t support the team without the money brought in by bigger teams. Imagine what a weekend’s worth of gate receipts against Minnesota or NoDak means to teams like Michigan Tech.

By creating this new conference, the six teams are ensuring their own insulation from the fallout created by the Big Ten by shoving smaller teams into its path.

On the opposite side of this view, there are those that think by doing things this way that college hockey can become more of a draw for television and that by breaking everyone into this odd sort of caste system will make life better for those who are able to keep up. Minnesota-Duluth radio play-by-play man and former Fanhouse writer Bruce Ciskie makes his case for why this isn’t the death knell for college hockey.

It’s a chance for the schools in Minnesota and upper Michigan to build new rivalries that will excite the fans. It’s a chance for all of them to get into a situation where they are battling peer schools for recruits, as opposed to trying to recruit against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

We could end up not losing programs, giving more teams a real chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and we are setting up a league structure that allows for future expansion if it becomes feasible for someone to add the sport. If this scenario plays out, tell me how this isn’t a good thing for college hockey, a sport that simply needs to find ways to expand.

The possibilities are there for this pan out well and pay off for college hockey, but by creating groups of “haves” and “have nots” which is what this new set up will do is dangerous for a sport that’s both expensive for schools to budget and one without a definitive television presence to help pay the bills. With these conferences all breaking off and doing their own thing, doing so and seemingly having it happen without regard to the schools struggling to stay afloat isn’t wise.

College hockey is the ultimate niche in what’s a niche sport as it is. With the NHL being fourth among the professional sports and college hockey being on very few radars, potentially losing programs to send players to reeks of cutting off the nose to spite the face. You can argue about the merits of the schools that might fail and disappear (Bowling Green and Alabama-Huntsville top the short list) but in a world that sees the number of FBS football programs slowly increasing and the number of D-I college basketball programs on the rise as well, having programs fail and reduce the playing field is brutally unwise.

Perhaps things will work out the way Ciskie sees it and things will work for the betterment of the game and see a rise in the number of programs and a rise in attention for the sport, but with so many things up in the air right now it’s hard to believe that smaller schools can withstand the blow of losing all of their big money conference rivals. Creating a second class in a sport that needs all the help it can get is a dicey proposition. For college hockey fans and supporters, they’ll have to wait to find out who’s right in the end. Here’s to hoping those in charge have their act together and aren’t looking for the neck-saving cash grab.

Predators’ Ryan Hartman suspended one game for illegal check to head

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When the Nashville Predators attempt to close out their series against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night they will be without forward Ryan Hartman.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday afternoon that Hartman has been suspended one game for an illegal check to the head of Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg during the Predators’ 3-2 win in Game 4 on Wednesday.

Here is the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

He was given a two-minute minor penalty for charging on the play. It happened early in the third period.

It turned out to be a pretty eventful night for Hartman as he was also penalized in the second period for roughing and holding the stick during a sequence that saw him get speared by Avalanche forward Sven Andrighetto.

Andrighetto was given a roughing penalty during the sequence, but to this point has not received any supplemental discipline for the spearing incident.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This is already the fourth suspension of the playoffs as Hartman joins Drew Doughty (one game), Nazem Kadri (three games), and Josh Morrissey (one game) as players to sit for at least one game.

There was only one suspension during the entire 2017 playoffs.

The Predators acquired Hartman at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Victor Ejdsell, a first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick. In 78 games this season between the two teams he scored 11 goals to go with 20 assists. Three of those goals game as a member of the Predators. So far in the first-round series against Colorado he has scored one goal for the Predators.

Related: Avalanche to start Andrew Hammond in Game 5

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sharks showed in Round 1 they’re not done yet

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For the better part of the past two decades the San Jose Sharks have been a near constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making 18 appearances in 20 years. Because that run has not yet resulted in a Stanley Cup — and at times resulted in some crushing, premature postseason exits — they have usually been more of a playoff punchline than a celebrated success story for being a contender almost every year. With every passing year that does not result in a championship, and with every year that foundational  players like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski get older, we seem to forget about them a little more.

It’s usually the old “their window has closed” situation as we wait for them to fade into obscurity.

Then two years ago, after everyone seemingly gave up on them being a serious threat to ever win it all, they finally had a breakthrough and reached the Stanley Cup Final.

They entered the playoffs this year as somewhat of an afterthought once again (hey, I admit, I was guilty of that too), lost beneath the hype of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and even their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights. But after making quick work of an overmatched and hapless Ducks team in round one, outscoring them by an 16-4 margin in a clean four-game sweep, they are now in the second-round of the playoffs ready to take on the Vegas with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. They have done all of this while only getting 47 games out of Thornton who has not played since the end of January.

So what has been the key to their success? For one, they finally have a goalie they can count on in the playoffs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

One of the biggest issues that plagued some of the great Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau teams in the early-mid 2000s were some truly disastrous postseason goaltending performances from the likes of Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi that completely sunk the team’s chances. Those postseason shortcomings were then hung on the two guys at the top of the lineup (Thornton and Marleau) even though they almost always produced.

Now the net belongs to Martin Jones, and in what is his third playoff run with the team he is once again playing some of his best hockey at the right time of year.

Jones was incredible in the first-round sweep of the Ducks, turning aside 128 of the 132 shots he faced. In his 34 playoff games as a member of the Sharks he now has a .930 save percentage. Of the 18 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 playoff games during that stretch, that would be tied for the third best mark in the NHL. That sort of goaltending will always give you a chance.

For as good as Jones has been, it is not just the goaltending that is sparking the Sharks right now.

They have also managed to reshape their roster a bit and work in some youth and speed, even from what the team looked like just one year ago. The Ducks, a classic rough-and-tumble “heavy hockey” Pacific Division team, were overmatched it by from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

When looking at the skaters that played in the first-round this season versus the first round a year ago (when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers) you can see where the changes come in.

After being a healthy scratch in all six playoff games a year ago, 22-year-old Kevin Labanc not only played in all four games in the first-round, he recorded two assists, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and generally played great two-way hockey. The same was true for 23-year-old center Chris Tierney as he came off what was a breakout regular season performance. Twenty-one-year-old Timo Meier, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, saw an increased role this season and after scoring 21 goals during the regular season contributed three points in the first-round against the Ducks.

That influx of young talent has been a great complement to the established veterans already on the roster, including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, a trio that combined for six goals against the Ducks. And that doesn’t even include trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane whose two goal effort in Game 1 helped lead the Sharks to their first win of the playoffs.

Including playoffs, the Sharks are 16-6-1 since that trade while Kane has had three multiple-goal games during that stretch.

Given how impressive Vegas was in its first round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings — a series that pretty much mirrored the Sharks’ win, where a faster, more skilled team overwhelmed a slower, bigger, more physical team — the Sharks are certainly going to have their hands full in round two. But they have put themselves in a great position to make another deep run in the Western Conference in another year where everybody kind of forgot about them.

The Sharks are still here. They are still good. Given the makeup of their roster, they are not ready to go away anytime soon.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Andrew Hammond to start Game 5 for Avalanche

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When the Colorado Avalanche hit the ice in Nashville on Friday night they will be facing elimination. They will also need to rely on their third-string goalie to help get them a win if they are going to extend their season.

The team announced on Thursday that Andrew Hammond will be getting the start, replacing Jonathan Bernier who had to leave Wednesday’s game after two periods with a lower body injury. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Bernier’s injury has been a nagging one and that he could still be available off the bench on Friday if needed.

The Avalanche had been starting Bernier because their regular starter, Semyon Varlamov, is out for the remainder of the season due to a lower body injury of his own.

Obviously, this puts the Avalanche in a pretty tough spot. Not only because they have to go on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Predators, but also because they have to turn to a goalie that, including Wednesday’s brief relief appearance, has appeared in just eight NHL games over the past two years. He has faced only 127 shots in those appearances and managed only an .874 save percentage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 Hammond’s career has been a fascinating one to this point.

Late in the 2014-15 season he came out of nowhere as a 25-year-old rookie to lead the Ottawa Senators on an improbable late season run (where Hammond put together a 20-1-2 record) to qualify for the playoffs. Nicknamed “the Hamburglar,” his initial run in Ottawa was highlighted by fans throwing hamburgers on the ice to celebrate his wins.  That run earned him a contract extension with the Senators and a bunch of free hamburgers from McDonalds. It was a crazy year.

After that, though, injuries and a decline in his production have limited him to just a handful of appearances in the NHL.

The Avalanche acquired him from the Senators earlier this season as part of the Matt Duchene trade.

Now he has to jump into the crease in an elimination game.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Predators’ Ryan Hartman to have hearing after illegal check to the head

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Ryan Hartman had a tough night at the office on Wednesday night and will have to answer to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety because of it.

Hartman’s hearing stems from a charging penalty he was assessed after lining up Colorado Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg‘s head with his shoulder at the 4:42 mark of the third period.

Soderberg was forced to leave the game after the play.

Earlier in the game, Hartman tried to line up Sven Andrighetto from a mile out in the second period but missed, prompting the latter to come and give Hartman some business, which included a stick below the belt to Hartman.

The Predators took Game 4 by a 3-2 margin, holding off a third-period comeback attempt from the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck