Victor Hedman

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Victor Hedman returned ahead of schedule for Lightning

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If Victor Hedman‘s recovery fell on the long end, he could have missed as many as six weeks. Instead, he only missed five games for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

He actually beat the three weeks that was considered the low end of that three-to-six week window, playing for Tampa Bay in a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. While he didn’t turn the tide for Tampa Bay, he wasn’t a negative presence, either.

Hedman actually logged exactly 25 minutes of ice time in that return. That’s impressive, although head coach Jon Cooper admits that it wasn’t exactly the blueprint, as NHL.com’s Tim Campbell reports.

“[Hedman] is our best defenseman and he probably had to play more minutes than we had planned,” Cooper said. “So we basically had to play the whole first period with five defensemen. But he’s missed three weeks, so it takes a little time to get back in the game. For missing that long, he’s a big part of our team, but he was fine tonight.”

(Dan Girardi was a little banged up in this game, hence the Lightning being limited to “five defensmen.”)

After losing their first two games without Hedman, the Lightning managed a three-game winning streak to cap off his absence heading into the All-Star break. Anton Stralman and Jake Dotchin served as the Lightning’s top pairing with Hedman out, while the big Swede replaced Stralman upon his return. Beyond Hedman’s superlative talent, the Lightning simply piece things together more reasonably with him in the lineup, as Hedman can prop up a player still learning to make it in the NHL in Dotchin while Stralman can provide similar guidance to Mikhail Sergachev (who, for all of his offensive accomplishments, had been a recent healthy scratch).

Generally speaking, the Lightning have been handling the challenges of a lot of road games and Hedman’s injury quite well. They still must weather some storms, though.

They played their last five games on the road, with the All-Star break providing a handy palate cleanser. Even so, they play three more games on this current trip, along with five of their next seven, and eight of their next 12 contests on the road.

Such a stretch might make it tough to totally hold off the red-hot Boston Bruins, who are making a somewhat surprising push for the Atlantic title.

On the other hand, this could be a helpful test for the Lightning. It gives Hedman some time to work his way back to full strength with the playoffs not that far away, and gives a dominant team some experience dealing with adversity during a season where they’ve largely rolled over competition.

Considering that a typical playoff series lasts no longer than two weeks, it’s likely helpful for a team to deal with injuries and other forms of bad luck now rather than trying to shake off those haymakers for the first time during the most important games of the year.

The Lightning now know that they can at least keep their heads above water without Hedman, even if they also realize just how crucial he is.

That said, maybe this is another push for management to add some useful depth to this defense at the trade deadline? Even a team as loaded as the Lightning could use a little help, at least with a Stanley Cup as the ultimate barometer for success in their case.

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 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

PHT Midseason Report Card: Atlantic Division

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Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

• Boston Bruins:

Season Review: The Bruins have been the hottest team in the NHL for over a month now. They went into the All-Star break riding an 18-game point streak (14-0-4). They own a 29-10-8 record (66 points) through 47 games. The Bruins are currently second in the division, just five points behind the Bolts with two games in hand. Grade: A.

Biggest Surprise: We all knew that Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were good players, but nobody could have expected this kind of dominance from Boston’s top trio. They haven’t only dominated in the offensive zone, they’ve managed to keep teams in check in their own end, too.

Biggest Disappointment: There aren’t many disappointments in Boston this season, but Brandon Carlo‘s second season hasn’t gone as well as his first. He’s averaging almost less than two minutes of ice time per game compared to last year and he has just five assists this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy, buy, buy. The Bruins have a lot of young assets they can use to acquire some help for their playoff push. GM Don Sweeney could be in the market for another scoring forward. Making a splash at the deadline could be the difference between going to the cup final or not.

Second Half Outlook: They’ll suffer a loss in regulation eventually, but they’ve managed to close the gap between themselves and the first-place Lightning enough that they can challenge for top spot in the Atlantic.

• Buffalo Sabres:

Season Review: Things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Sabres in the first half of the season. They head into the break with a 14-26-9 record (37 points), which puts them only ahead of the Arizona Coyotes in the standings. It’s another lost year in Buffalo. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: The fact that Evander Kane is having a strong season isn’t a surprise, but he’s on pace to score a career-high 60 points in his contract year. Kane will almost certainly be traded before the trade deadline. Sabres fans will have to hope that he nets them a nice return.

Biggest Disappointment: There are plenty of disappointing things about the Sabres’ 2017-18 season, but the fact that they’ve scored a league-low 114 goals in 49 games. Kane, Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly are the only three players on the roster to hit double-digit goals so far this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: There’s no doubt that they Sabres will be in seller mode at the deadline. There’s absolutely no way that they’ll make the playoffs, which means they’ll be trading pending unrestricted free agents for draft picks and futures before the end of the month.

Second Half Outlook: With the playoffs a distant dream, the Sabres should focus on finishing as low as they can in the standings, so they can try to land an impact blue liner like Rasmus Dahlin through the draft. Judging on their first half of the season, it won’t be too hard for them to lose during the stretch.

• Detroit Red Wings:

Season Review: The Red Wings season has gone exactly the way most people had anticipated. They aren’t one of the bottom teams in the league, but they’re still 10 points out of a playoff spot. The Red Wings have a 19-21-8 record (46 points) through 48 games. To make matters worse, they went out and signed veterans like Trevor Daley in free agency. It’s time for them to start embracing the rebuild. Grade: D+.

Biggest Surprise: Dylan Larkin is having quite the bounce back season. He currently leads the Red Wings in points with 38 in 48 games this season, which is strong considering he had just 32 all of last year. The 21-year-old appears to be back on the right track. It looks like he’ll turn into the player they hoped he’d be after his strong rookie season.

Biggest Disappointment: Only the Senators, Coyotes and Sabres have found the back of the net less often than the Red Wings in the first half of the season. Justin Abdelkader, Henrik Zetterberg and Larkin have combined to score just 22 goals. That’s simply not enough if the Red Wings want to make a statement in the East.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Wings front office needs to realize that it’s time for them to sell off veteran assets like pending unrestricted free agent Mike Green. It’s time for them to start piling up young assets and draft picks, so that they can start putting together another dynasty.

Second Half Outlook: Their 10 points out of a playoff spot, so they won’t be able to play deep into April, but they aren’t quite as bad as the Buffalo Sabres either. Expect the Red Wings to play spoiler as the season goes on.

• Florida Panthers: 

Season Review: The Panthers have some talent on their roster with players like Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau, but it’s clear that they’re still lacking in the depth department. Florida has 19-22-6 record (44 points), which puts them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Trocheck is coming off a pair of back-to-back 50-point seasons, but he’s been on a roll this year. Trocheck is already up to 18 goals and 44 points in 47 games this season. Nobody expected the Panthers forward to score at nearly a point-per game pace.

Biggest Disappointment: Veteran forward Radim Vrbata‘s production has fallen off the map. After scoring 20 goals and 55 points last season, he has just five goals and 13 points in 35 games this season. The fact that they’re lacking in the depth scoring department is partly Vrbata’s fault.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Panthers don’t have much to trade in terms of rentals, but they could look to make a hockey trade or two to improve their outlook going forward. They’ve built a strong core with Huberdeau, Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, but they clearly need more if they want to get back to the playoffs next season.

Second Half Outlook: Like the Red Wings, the Panthers have enough talent not to finish in the basement of the Eastern Conference. They’ll likely be looking to play spoiler for teams hoping to make the playoffs.

• Montreal Canadiens: 

Season Review: The Canadiens have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league this season. They had legitimate playoff aspirations at the start of the year, but they’ve fallen totally flat. They don’t have enough scoring, their defense is mediocre and Carey Price can’t do everything himself. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Brendan Gallagher is having a strong bounce back season after dealing with a few injuries over the last couple of years. Gallagher is on pace to score 30 goals for the first time in his career. But even beyond the numbers, he’s continuously been the heart and soul of his team all season.

Biggest Disappointment: Jonathan Drouin was the major acquisition of the offseason and he just hasn’t lived up to the hype. He’s still young, but his transition to center has been slow, painful and filled with mistakes. Drouin is far from the only disappointment on the roster, but he’s the one they were counting on to be their next local superstar. There’s still time for him to turn it around, it just hasn’t happened as quickly as most expected.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Marc Bergevin will surely look to sell off expiring contracts like Tomas Plekanec, but it sounds like they could be looking to shake things up in the locker room, too. Max Pacioretty‘s name has come up in trade rumors. If they make that move before the deadline that would be a huge wake up call to the players in the locker room.

Second Half Outlook: The Canadiens don’t have much coming through the pipeline, so they need to focus on being as bad as they can be in order to increase their odds of winning the lottery. They’ll be competitive some nights because of Price, but giving Antti Niemi a few more starts down the stretch could be a subtle way to tank.

• Ottawa Senators:

Season Review: Oh how things can change quickly in the NHL. The Senators were a goal away from going to the Stanley Cup Final last season, but they’ve fallen off the map completely in 2017-18. Ottawa’s 39 points put them just two ahead of the lowly Sabres, who are in the basement of the Eastern Conference. All this talk of trading Erik Karlsson certainly hasn’t helped their team. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: Mark Stone has put up a pair of 60-point seasons in his career, but he’s rolling at exactly a point-per-game pace through 44 games in 2017-18. The 25-year-old’s play is definitely the biggest positive to come out of this season for the Senators even though he’s banged up right now.

Biggest Disappointment: The Matt Duchene trade simply didn’t give the Sens the shot in the arm they were looking for. To make matters worse, the Avalanche and Predators have been rolling since the three-way trade went down earlier this season. This whole year has been a colossal disappointment in Ottawa, and the trade that was supposed to fix everything hasn’t done that at all.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Like most of the other teams in the division, the Senators will look to be sellers at the trade deadline. It’s also important to keep things in perspective. As much as their season has been a disappointment, they’ve still managed to get top prospects Thomas Chabot and Colin White some playing time. They need to find a way to add youngsters to their up-and-coming group.

Second Half Outlook: Well, when you’re 17 points out of a playoff spot it’s easy to see what your second half will look like. One thing they should try to do between now and the end of the season is make Erik Karlsson happy again. They’ve done a horrendous job of doing that since October, so it’s time for them to admit their mistakes and get him signed to a long-term deal. Or else, you might as well blow this team up.

• Tampa Bay Lightning:

Season Review: After missing the playoffs last season, the Lightning couldn’t have asked for a much better first half of the season. Sure, they might be slumping a little bit heading into the All-Star break, but that’s bound to happen to every team over an 82-game season. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the gang have emerged as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. They have the best record in the NHL at 34-12-3, which gives them a grade I could’ve only dreamed about when I was in school. Grade: A+.

Biggest Surprise: Sergachev was made a healthy scratch in the last two games before the break, but he’s clearly been the biggest surprise on the team. When the rookie blue liner was acquired from the Canadiens last summer, no one expected him to play such a big role on this season. The 19-year-old has eight goals and 27 points in 47 games during his first full NHL season. Honorable mention to Yanni Gourde.

Biggest Disappointment: They have the best record in the league, they’ve scored the most goals in the league and they have the best goal differential in the league, so writing down a disappointment seems unnecessary.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Most people will say that the Lightning need to be buyers. Sure, they could add a complimentary piece or two to their roster, but they don’t have to go overboard. Their team is clearly good enough to make a Stanley Cup run if they stay healthy, and making a major trade might disrupt chemistry. GM Steve Yzerman should be looking to make small tweaks to his roster, nothing more.

Second Half Outlook: As good as they were in the first half, they need to make sure they keep rolling from February through the end of the season. They can’t allow themselves to get complacent. Getting home ice advantage throughout the playoffs should be the goal. They’re definitely talented enough to get the job done.

• Toronto Maple Leafs: 

Season Review: The Leafs came out of the gate like gangbusters at the start of the season. They were scoring goals by the truckload and they were skating everybody out of the building. They looked like they were going to give the Lightning a run for the division crown, but things haven’t materialized that way. Their offense has dried up in recent weeks and many of the players they were counting on to produce haven’t done that. The injury to Auston Matthews earlier this season seemed to have set them back. Despite all that, they are comfortably in a playoff spot with a record of 28-18-5 (61 points). Grade: B.

Biggest Surprise: It’s not necessarily a surprise, but Morgan Rielly has been a real positive on a team that is clearly lacking good defensemen. The Leafs blue liner has taken another positive step in his development and that’s led him to tallying more points. The 23-year-old is already up to 31 points through 47 games this season (his career high is 36). They need him to get healthy.

Biggest Disappointment: The Leafs’ play in their own end still isn’t good enough to be considered an elite team in the league or even the conference. They rank in the bottom half of the NHL in goals allowed, and that’s something that will have to change if they’re going to compete with the Bruins and Lightning.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They have to go out and find themselves another competent, puck-moving defenseman. They clearly have enough offense to get the job done, now they have to find a way to land a blue liner that can play top-four minutes. Making that kind of trade is difficult during the season, but they’ll need to do it if they want to make it out of the first round.

Second Half Outlook: Babcock and his team will never admit this, but they’ve pretty much wrapped up a playoff spot. Now, they’ll have to focus on getting their game in order before the postseason hits in April. Whether they face Tampa Bay or Boston, they’ll have their hands full. And as bright as the future is, another first-round exit would be disappointing.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Lightning players dominate PHWA’s midseason awards

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The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association brought back its midseason awards this year and as most of the hockey world descends on Tampa for the NHL All-Star Game this weekend, Lightning players dominated some of the top honors.

Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy were all voted as winners in four of the 10 award categories. The PHWA invited 2,000 fans and more than 150 of its members to vote.

Along with the usual awards, the PHWA introduced the Rod Langway Award for best defensive defenseman and the Comeback Player of the Year.

Here are the final results:

Hart Trophy
1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
3. John Tavares, New York Islanders

Norris Trophy
1. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
3. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

Selke Trophy
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
3. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Calder Trophy
1. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
2. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
3. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

Lady Byng Trophy 
1. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Ryan O’Reilly, Buffalo Sabres

[NHL Awards: PHT hands out some midseason hardware]

Vezina Trophy
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
3. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Jack Adams Award
1. Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights
2. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets

GM of the Year Award
1. George McPhee, Vegas Golden Knights
2. Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Ray Shero, New Jersey Devils

Rod Langway Award (To the defenseman who best excels in the defensive aspect of the game.)
1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
2. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
3. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

Comeback Player of the Year Award (To the player who returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.)
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Brian Boyle, New Jersey Devils
3. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Sure, there can be some nit-picking in places, but not too many surprises here through the season’s first half. It will be fun to look back at this vote (and our own staff picks) come mid-April when the regular season ends. How much change will we see?

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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.

Boyle, Point, Smith named replacements for NHL All-Star Game

Brian Boyle, Brayden Point and Mike Smith have been named as replacements for this weekend’s NHL All-Star Game in Tampa.

Point will replace his injured Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Victor Hedman, who’s out with a knee injury. Mike Smith of the Calgary Flames will take the place of Jonathan Quick on the Pacific Division team. The Los Angeles Kings netminder has been dealing with a lingering injury, and while he backed up Darcy Kuemper during Wedneday night’s 2-1 overtime win against the Flames he will have to miss the team’s first game out of the break Tuesday in Dallas.

“They’ve been on-and-off,” Kings general manager Rob Blake said of what’s been bothering Quick. “Just by going off of his past and his last season and that, we felt the time that he could use over this All-Star Break to really get things healed up and take that time to move forward for the stretch here.”

A hand injury has kept Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils out since Saturday night and he’ll remain sidelined through the break. In his place on the Metropolitan Division team will be teammate Brian Boyle, who was a member of the Lightning for three seasons. His introduction to the Amalie Arena crowd this weekend will surely be emotional four months after he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.

Brad Marchand, meanwhile, will be in attendance this weekend despite being suspended five games for elbowing Devils forward Marcus Johansson.

“I’m going to go,” Marchand said after Thursday’s morning skate. “I’m very proud of that opportunity. It’s something that I’ve worked very hard for and never thought I’d have the opportunity to do. It’s something I’m very proud about and I’m going to go and enjoy every second of it.”

Apparently, NHL rules allow suspended players to participate in the All-Star Game, whereas players who miss due to injury must sit out a game. Go figure.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who are celebrating their 25th season, and the city of Tampa will host the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend. The League’s midseason showcase will take place at AMALIE Arena and will include the 2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Saturday, Jan. 27 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) and 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday, Jan. 28 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

More NHL All-Star Game coverage:
NHL announces details of 2018 All-Star Skills Competition
NHL reveals 2018 All-Star Game rosters; who missed out?

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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.