NHL All-Star Game returns to thriving Tampa Bay market

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By Fred Goodall – AP Sports Writer

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The NHL All-Star game is being played in Tampa Bay for the first time since Wayne Gretzky made his last appearance in the showcase and many still questioned whether the league could prosper in a non-traditional market better known for sunshine and beaches than winning hockey.

Nearly two decades later, the answer is a resounding yes.

Not only has the league flourished in Tampa and other Sun Belt locations where the game continues to grow, the hometown Lightning have evolved into what generally is regarded as a model franchise – not merely for hockey, but all of pro sports.

Now a community that’s hosted four Super Bowls, the World Series, two Stanley Cup finals and last year’s college football national championship game welcomes the spotlight for its first NHL All-Star game since 1999.

Gretzky made the last of his 18 All-Star appearances that year and had a goal and two assists to capture MVP honors.

”It’s very special to be named to an All-Star game, regardless of where it’s played. But when it’s in your home city, it’s that much more special,” said Lightning star Steven Stamkos, a five-time selection.

”I know the amount of work that’s gone into preparing for it,” Stamkos, one of four Tampa Bay players in this weekend’s game, said. ”It’s going to be a great showcase of a hockey city. … I’m sure we’ll put on a great show.”

Downtown Tampa, along with 19,000-seat Amalie Arena, has been transformed into a colorful tribute to the league’s biggest stars.

Festivities began Friday with a free outdoor concert headlined by Fitz and the Tantrums and the opening of All-Star PreGame, a three-day fun fest open to the general public as well as fans fortunate enough to land game tickets.

Media Day and the All-Star Skills Competition are Saturday, followed by Sunday’s main event featuring teams from the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific divisions playing a three-game tournament in a popular three-on-three format adopted in 2016.

And if the game’s brightest stars coming to town isn’t a big enough reason to celebrate, All-Star weekend is being held in conjunction with Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Pirate Invasion, an annual event that attracts about 200,000 people for a parade along the city’s downtown waterfront.

”It’s a big block party. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a season ticket member or somebody who just enjoys catching an occasional Lightning game on TV,” former Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, now the club’s executive director of community hockey development, said.

Feaster assembled the team that won Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup title in 2004, however the Lightning never fully reaped the benefits of the championship run because a labor strife wiped out the next season.

A growing fan base ready to embrace the club’s success suddenly didn’t have a defending champion to cheer.

Feaster is excited about a resurgence led by owner Jeff Vinik, coach Jon Cooper and Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who as the current general manager has composed a talented young roster built for long-term success.

The Lightning, celebrating their 25th season, reached the All-Star break with the league’s best record and have re-emerged as a championship contender after narrowly missing the playoffs a year ago.

The Lightning dropped the Stanley Cup final to Chicago in six games three years ago, then came within one victory of returning to the NHL’s biggest stage the following season.

”What Steve Yzerman has done I think is just masterful, the way he’s assembled this team,” Feaster said.

”He’s assembled it (to be) not just one and done. We won one Stanley Cup when I was general manager,” Feaster added. ”We got back to the playoffs after the lockout a couple of times, but never got close to an Eastern Conference final or a Stanley Cup final again.”

The Lightning will be represented by a league-leading four players in Sunday’s game – Stamkos, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and forwards Nikita Kucherov and Bryden Point, a replacement for injured Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman.

Feaster, who worked for the Lightning from 1998 to 2008, returned to Tampa in 2014 to lead the club’s youth and high school outreach efforts after a stint as GM of the Calgary Flames.

While he always felt the region had the potential to thrive as a hockey market, Feaster said the growth of the sport locally in the years since the community-minded Vinik took control of the team in 2010 has far exceeded his expectations.

In the two seasons following the Lightning’s latest appearance in the Stanley Cup final, the number of youth hockey players in the Tampa Bay area increased by 747 kids, up from a base of about 1,000.

”Jeff has done such a tremendous job of growing the brand, and the hockey team has helped, too,” Feaster said.

”As you know, if you’re not winning, the mustard isn’t yellow enough in the building,” Feaster added. ”It’s the team. It’s what Jeff puts into the community. … It truly is exponential growth.”

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

Bruins will way to Game 7 win against Maple Leafs

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Once again, the Boston Bruins finished a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, riding an overpowering third period. In the case of Wednesday’s game, the end result was a 7-4 win for the Bruins.

The 2018 edition featured some similarities to the Bruins’ 5-4 win back in 2013.

  • A Maple Leafs team headed for the summer shaking their heads and with some serious soul-searching to do.
  • The heartache that comes with the Leafs giving up leads. Toronto was up 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3. This wasn’t a collapse of the “It was 4-1” variety, but the Maple Leafs squandered multiple leads nonetheless.

  • The Bruins simply ran away with things in the third period. Boston went from being down 4-3 to winning 7-4. That domination included the Bruins keeping the Maple Leafs from registering a shot on goal through the first eight minutes of the final frame.

In the case of this latest Game 7, there were times when it seemed like the last shot on goal might be the winner.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Really, it was a nightmare game for both goalies. Frederik Andersen‘s Game 7 heartache is no longer limited to his time with the Anaheim Ducks, as he gave up six goals, including a few that are likely to haunt him during the off-season. The Lightning must be licking their chops at the prospect of exploiting what might be a fragile goalie in Tuukka Rask; the Bruins ended up on top in this one, yet Rask gave up four goals on 24 shots.

(Maybe a solid finish will help bolster his self-esteem? Rask stopped all eight Maple Leafs SOG in the third period after giving up those four goals on the first 18 shots he faced.)

If you want to summarize Game 7 in one video clip, Jake DeBrusk‘s second goal of the night (and eventual game-winner) could suffice. The Bruins simply demanded this win, showing off their skill and will while flabbergasting the overmatched Maple Leafs and a struggling Andersen:

Several players came up big on each side. DeBrusk scored those two goals and was quite the presence overall. Charlie McAvoy logged 26:43 of ice time with a +1 rating, while a blocked shot apparently didn’t really throw off Zdeno Chara, who managed a +2 rating and 28:38 TOI. Despite some warranted criticisms, David Krejci did manage to generate three assists, adding to a substantial playoff resume for his career. Patrick Marleau provided more than just a “veteran presence” for the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals during a zany first period.

Still, when it comes to the Maple Leafs, many will linger on those who fell short.

Andersen’s struggles were considerable, rounding out a remarkably hot-and-cold series overall. Auston Matthews failed to score a point despite firing four SOG, finishing the series with just a single goal and single assist. Jake Gardiner had an awful Game 7, suffering a -5 rating and absorbing some of the blame for multiple bad moments.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Gardiner said “most” of the loss was on him and that the defenseman had tears in his eyes while asking questions.

“I didn’t show up,” Gardiner said.

The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs in an exhilarating fashion, carrying over an impressive regular season of puck-hogging play. They have plenty of room for improvement, something Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy will surely emphasize as they turn their sights to a rested, versatile opponent in the Lightning.

If it’s anything like Bruins – Leafs, it should be thrilling … and maybe a goalie’s nightmare.

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.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info

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The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is now set, thanks to the Boston Bruins winning Game 7 over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-4. The Bruins will move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the Washington Capitals to complete the Eastern Conference bracket. Out West, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets will battle out of the Central Division and the Vegas Golden Knights take on the San Jose Sharks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Here’s the full second round schedule, which kicks off with two games on Thursday night:

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kapanen overwhelms Marchand, scores ridiculous goal

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To the chagrin of the coaches and goalies, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs are keeping things hectic during the second period of Game 7.

Kasperi Kapanen seems like he’s perpetually battling for a permanent/more prominent spot with the Maple Leafs, but it’s not for a lack of trying or moxie. He’s been hitting posts on some near-misses lately, but saved some magic for tonight.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

You can see that in a 4-3 goal that currently stands as the Maple Leafs’ lead. Kapanen overpowers Brad Marchand and then outwaits Tuukka Rask for an absolutely tremendous shorthanded goal.

(Check out that goal in the video above this post’s headline.)

Impressive, especially considering who that came against. At one point, the Maple Leafs had converted on both of their shots on goal early in the second period to go from being down 3-2 to up 4-3. As mentioned after that wild first period, you have to wonder about both goalies’ confidence, but that’s especially true of Rask right now.

To be fair, Kapanen’s showed a real knack for scoring big goals so far during his brief NHL career. As you may remember, he scored the game-winner in double overtime of Game 2 against the Washington Capitals during that tight series to start the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also helped them punch their ticket to the postseason in 2016-17 with his first NHL goal.

Then again, maybe this sort of goal is in the blood? Kasperi Kapanen’s shorthanded goal feels reminiscent of a great goal by his father Sami Kapanen:

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 – Leafs Game 7 off to wild start, Reilly hit by puck

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You can forgive fans of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for hyperventilating right now, unless they’re merely staring blankly at their screens.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

Game 7 accelerated to 100 mph seemingly in mere seconds on Wednesday:

  • After a Sean Kuraly penalty, Patrick Marleau deflected a puck past Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a stunning 1-0 lead off of a power-play goal just 2:05 into the contest.
  • A delay of game infraction gave the Bruins a chance to tie things up on the power play, and they did just that as David Krejci and David Pastrnak set up Jake DeBrusk. That happened 4:47 into the game.
  • Less than two minutes later, Patrick Marleau scored again, giving Toronto a 2-1 edge that wouldn’t last.
  • The two teams combined for four goals through less than half of the first period, as Danton Heinen showed why he should be playing with the 2-2 goal with 11:50 remaining in the opening frame.
  • The Bruins took their first lead (3-2) of Game 7 with less than a minute left in the first period thanks to a goal by Patrice Bergeron.

Those were just the goals, too, as there were some close calls, making you wonder about the confidence of Rask and Frederik Andersen:

The two teams are also accruing some bumps and bruises, which must be to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s liking.

In the most dramatic instance, Brad Marchand ducked a high Zdeno Chara shot, leaving an unsuspecting Morgan Rielly to take a puck to the face. It’s a scary moment, although the good news is that Rielly was able to return for the beginning of the second period.

Yikes.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Chara also seemed stung by a blocked shot during the first period, as he took a puck to his ankle/foot area. He didn’t appear to miss any time, and it would be tough to imagine him not fighting through it during a Game 7, yet you wonder if the hulking defenseman’s mobility might be hindered after that.

The Bruins and Leafs already put on a show through 20 minutes. We’ll see who’s left standing to face the Bolts, whether this game ends in regulation or hits sudden death in a Game 7.

*Gulp*

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.