SPHL

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of innovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

 

Jets basically have two top lines, and that’s scary

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At times, this season feels like The Year of the Mega-Lines.

Even so, the modern NHL is cruel to offense, and many of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop, as much as we want the fun to continue. What if Steven StamkosNikita Kucherov is driven down by injuries? Can Brayden Schenn remain a point-per-game player with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz into the spring?

A lot has been going right for the Winnipeg Jets lately, as they improved to 14-5-3 after beating the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 on Friday. It was their sixth win in seven games; they’ve gone 11-2-3 since beginning 2017-18 with a sputtering 3-3-0 mark.

Still, there are some of those red flags that make you wonder if the party might stop soon. They ranked second in the NHL in even-strength PDO (via Natural Stat Trick) coming into today’s action, one of the go-to signs that a Cinderella story may end. Their possession numbers have left much to be desired. Connor Hellebuyck might be playing over his head.

All or at least most of those considerations are worth some concern.

Even so, Friday managed to shine a spotlight on a scary notion: the Jets might possess the equivalent of two “top lines,” or at least an electric top duo and a young, rising one that isn’t far behind.

Around the start of the season, the Jets raised some eyebrows – mine, anyway – by handing Nikolaj Ehlers a seven-year extension that carries a $6 million cap hit. It’s not like the 21-year-old lacked signs of brilliance; instead, it was just a little startling to see them be so proactive with a big contract and term rather than seeing if his 25-goal, 64-point breakthrough from 2016-17 was “for real.”

It’s incredibly early, but Ehlers is making it look like a wise decision, if not an outright steal. There are even moments when you might catch yourself wondering, “Is he just about as good as Patrik Laine?”

Perhaps the Ducks thought that way today, as Ehlers dropped two goals and an assist on them.

Snickers turn to nods of begrudging approval when you hear talk about “shot quality” with a team that might just have an excess of high-end shooters. After all, you can only cheat to cut off shooters so much if it means giving Ehlers too much time and space:

Laine played somewhere between coy and possum when discussing how hockey was “hard” for him during a relative scoring slump, as he’s climbing to right where the Jets would want him to be. Since November began, the 19-year-old has only failed to score a point in a single game and averages a point-per-night. (Overall, he has 17 points in 22 contests.)

This outburst gives Ehlers 10 goals and 17 points, and perhaps the Jets’ risky investment in Bryan Little may look better if he can merely set the table for these two. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the Ehlers – Laine benefit from the occasional wake-up call, though.

And, again, the scary part is that Ehlers – Laine isn’t even the first pairing you’d underline on the whiteboard.

Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler both sit at 25 points even after being blanked on Friday, and it seems like they might have found their third amigo in Kyle Connor, another young forward coming up the ranks in Winnipeg.

It has to be disheartening for opponents to consider that they might shut down Scheifele – Wheeler and still get blitzed out of the building by Laine and Ehlers, yet that’s the predicament you face, particularly since the Jets boast the sort of defensemen who might force you to “stay honest” in the likes of Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba.

Does this all mean that Winnipeg can just pencil in its first playoff games, nay, series wins already? No, they have questions, all the way up to if Paul Maurice can make it all work.

That said, days like these make you wonder if the talent will do all the work for him.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins, Khudobin top Penguins for fourth straight win

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Don’t look now but here come the Boston Bruins.

Thanks to their 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday afternoon the Bruins were able to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference standings with their fourth consecutive win, all of them coming with backup goaltender Anton Khubodin in net.

Friday’s win ended up being a little more difficult than it looked after 20 minutes.

The Bruins stormed out of the gates and dominated the first period, scoring a pair of goals and limiting the Penguins to just four shots on goal. They held a 3-1 lead in the second period until the Penguins were able to strike back with a pair of goals, including a really flukey game-tying goal from Sidney Crosby that needed to go through two different replay reviews, to tie the game.

But early in the third period David Pastrnak was able to sneak behind the Penguins’ defense on a breakaway and score what would prove to be the game-winning goal.

With that win the Bruins are for the time being in the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

The Penguins, meanwhile, continue to look like a lost hockey team. Their loss on Friday was their ninth in their past 13 games and they have still just won just 11 of their first 24 games this season.

Friday’s game was also the Penguins’ third consecutive loss.

Defense continues to be an issue, as does depth scoring and 5-on-5 offense.

Things will not get any easier for the Penguins on Saturday when they have to return home for a game against the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It will be the third time the Penguins have played the Lightning this season in the second half of a back-to-back situation. They lost the first two games by a combined score of 12-5.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins

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If you are looking for a break from your Black Friday shopping or your relatives in town for the holidays we have something that should work nicely: Some afternoon hockey as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Boston Bruins.

The Bruins enter the game having won three in a row, all with backup goalie Anton Khudobin in net. He has allowed just four goals in those three games.

The Penguins, meanwhile, are still trying to find their stride this season and have won just four of their past 12 games. They are still trying to figure out ways to replace some of the depth they lost this summer.

Opening faceoff is at 1 p.m. ET.

You can catch all of the action on NBC or on our NBC Live Stream.

Click Here For The Live Stream

Preview: NHL On NBC: Bruins’ Khudobin looks for fourth straight win in matinee matchup against Pens.

New York Rangers reveal 2018 Winter Classic jerseys (Photos)

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The Buffalo Sabres already revealed their look for the 2018 Winter Classic earlier this week, and on Friday the New York Rangers gave us our first look at what their uniforms will look like for the Jan. 1 game to be played at Citi Field in New York.

[Buffalo Sabres reveal 2018 Winter Classic jersey (Photos)]

Have a look, both in the picture at the top showing the front of the uniforms, as well as the picture just below showing the back.

Thoughts on the Rangers’ look?

The 2018 Winter Classic is scheduled for a 1 p.m. ET faceoff at Citi Field in New York, the home of the New York Mets.

This year’s game will be the 10th anniversary of the annual New Years Day game.

Related: Buffalo Sabres reveal Winter Classic Jerseys