Focus group fallout: When does enough become enough for the NHL?

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The latest PR disaster for the NHL – as if yet another work stoppage wasn’t tarnishing its image enough – came Monday when it was revealed by Deadspin that a focus group had been commissioned by the league to gauge fan reaction to various lockout-related issues.

The focus group – led by well-known political consultant and Republican strategist Frank Luntz – asked participants to, among other things, read lists of statements and answer which ones made them feel most negative about the owners, or which ones were the most persuasive in justifying the lockout, or which ones were most disappointing about the lockout.

The intent of the focus group was obvious: The NHL wanted to know the best way to sell the lockout to the fans.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed to sportsnet.ca that the league regularly does “polling and focus groups on issues impacting the league, as do other sports leagues. It’s part of our normal business practices.”

But most will argue there’s a difference between assembling a focus group for marketing purposes (e.g, “What do you like most about the NHL playoffs?”) and PR purposes.

And while some have tried to justify the league’s use of focus groups, even in this particular case, the overwhelming reaction to the Deadspin story has been negative.

The question is, has it been negative enough to soften the league’s position against the NHLPA and, in turn, help resolve the lockout?

We ask in large part due to the NFL’s experience during its recent referees lockout. In that case, a badly blown call by the replacement officials on Monday Night Football was considered to have embarrassed the league to the point it had no choice but to bring back the regular refs.

Not to suggest NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is taking as much flak for the Deadspin story as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took for the replacement officials. The blown call in the Monday Night Football game was international news.

But Bettman is still taking some serious flak, the Deadspin story just the latest storm of controversy. Jim Devellano’s infamous “cattle” comment was another black eye for the NHL.

Bettman is used to the criticism and he knows it’s part of the job, but at some point enough has to become enough.

Whether we’re at the tipping point yet, or even close to it, is still to be seen.

The NHL and NHLPA are meeting today in Toronto.

Lightning give Vasilevskiy the (brief) hook after very rare Jurco goal

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By just about any measure, Monday’s been lousy to Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

He was pulled with a few minutes remaining in the first period after Chicago Blackhawks built a 3-1 lead, scoring those three goals on just eight shots on net.

You could summarize Vasilevskiy’s awful start by those numbers, or by how rare the 3-1 goal was for the scorer.

Tomas Jurco failed to score a goal or an assist in 16 games with the Red Wings, then went pointless in nine more games with Chicago before finally scoring his first goal of the season on Monday.

Now, Jon Cooper didn’t pull Vasilevskiy because Jurco scored that tally. Still, it rubs a little extra salt in his wounds all things considered.

Here’s the Jurco goal:

Patrick Kane‘s 2-1 goal might have hurt the most, actually, as it quickly dissolved a tying tally by Ondrej Palat:

Update: The Lightning decided to put Vasilevskiy back in net to begin the second period. Interesting.

Coach Q thinks Anisimov will be back by playoffs for Blackhawks

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The bad news is that Artem Anisimov seems likely to miss all – or at least most – of the regular season for the Chicago Blackhawks with his lower-body injury.

The good? Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville believes that Anisimov will be ready once the playoffs swing into motion, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports.

Anisimov was hurt when he got tangled up with Canadiens forward Alex Radulov on March 14:

The Blackhawks have been filling Anisimov’s typical spot alongside Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin with Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz lately. There have been flashes of brilliance with Schmaltz, but Chicago would probably feel most confident with Anisimov back in his familiar place.

Chicago’s Central lead is pretty secure over the Minnesota Wild at the moment, which likely reduces motivation to rush Anisimov back before he’s truly ready. The Blackhawks close out their regular season on April 8, so there’s still time for him to heal up.

Ducks demote Enroth, so Gibson’s close to a return

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The Anaheim Ducks are flying high – er, waddling with some swagger? – right now thanks to Jonathan Bernier‘s somewhat shocking turnaround, but the pending return of John Gibson is promising.

(Especially since the Ducks will likely want him to shake off some rust before the playoffs begin.)

While it’s not clear if he’s exactly 100 percent healthy just yet, the Ducks sending Jhonas Enroth back to the AHL is a strong sign that Gibson is close.

Enroth actually never got a shot to start for the Ducks, as his last NHL appearance came on Nov. 30, closing off his ill-fated run with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Considering that Enroth was once a fairly hot commodity as at least a promising backup, it will be interesting to see how his 2017-18 season pans out. Will he get more or less of a chance than he received this season?

Bernier, meanwhile, is richly rewarding the Ducks for sticking with him.

He’s provided them with a Vezina-caliber March: 9-1-1, 1.71 GAA and .943 save percentage with one shutout. You almost wonder if there’s at least some potential for a goalie controversy if Gibson stumbles whenever he gets back into action … but hey, having two good goalies to choose from is better than none.

(Which was the scenario that must have scared the Ducks when Gibson got hurt in the first place.)

WATCH LIVE: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Tampa Bay Lightning almost certainly haven’t faced the Chicago Blackhawks in a game this important since the two teams were vying for a Stanley Cup.

While the Blackhawks have already punched their ticket to the postseason and are merely trying to pad their lead in the Central Division, the Bolts are fighting for their playoff lives. At the moment, they rank three points behind the Boston Bruins for the final spot in the East. With a game in hand, they can make up a lot of ground tonight.

With all of that in mind, it should be an entertaining contest. You can check it out on NBCSN, watch online or via the NBC Sports App.

Click here for the livestream.