Sidney Crosby

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Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)

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As he’s done for eight previous Winter Classics, NBC’s Doc Emrick will be behind the mic for Monday’s game at CitiField between the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.

The date will be 10 years since the Sabres took part in the inaugural event at Ralph Wilson Stadium — a snowy, messy picturesque day that saw a dramatic end off the stick of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Emrick was there, too, and his call of Crosby’s winner quickly became legendary.

The afternoon was the NHL going up against college football bowl season, which historically had played some of its top games on Jan. 1. In 2008, the Winter Classic went head-to-head against four NCAA football games, including Michigan-Florida in the Capital One Bowl. The curiosity factor into the outdoor hockey game coupled with the weather situation resulted in interest rising as the game went along.

“But the thing that I was guessing as the rain turned to sleet and then the sleet turned into snow and then the snow started piling up even more, was people calling people on the phone and saying ‘are you watching this game in Buffalo?’,” Emrick told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “[J]ust as the snow did, the viewership started to build, too. Just [like] that construction site you have that hole in the fence that people can stop on the sidewalk and peer in and look, they wanted to see how people were going to handle this. That’s the beauty of outdoor games. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and if the elements enter in how are these people there that are paid to do this going to somehow or other compensate for what the elements are bringing in?

“What better place than Buffalo to have a game like this and what better elements to have than snow and frequent stoppages and getting the Zamboni out to scrape it again and have all of these happen and then have the dramatic finish. It couldn’t have been a bigger star.”

We spoke with Emrick about calling that first game, his favorite venues and where his famous Crosby line came from.

Enjoy.

Q. It was a pretty special day for fans and the players involved, but what about the broadcasters? You weren’t just calling a typical hockey game.

EMRICK: “The strange thing was leading up to it, I don’t think any of us had a grasp on what it would really be like until the day of. We went out there the day before and we began by treating it like we would a regular game. [We] went out the day of the practices to see what a rink inside a football stadium would look like because it was the first of one of those things for us and we got as many stories as players as we could after that practice.

“We realized that with the stands being largely empty that day, that we had a rough idea that it would be pretty interesting the next day, especially given what the forecast was and what Buffalo’s persona was when it came to winter storms… We didn’t have a real feel on how spectacular it became until the players started down the ramps from the football dressing rooms and the bagpipes were playing and those bursts of fire were going up in the air. Still to this day guys will talk about never having heard 70-plus-thousand people cheering at once as they did for both teams as they made their entry and having that roar building.

“I believe Brian Campbell said it last year, it’s one of those things that builds and you hear it and you hear it get louder and it rolls. I think that’s the thing that we notice in all of these stadiums, but particularly in football stadiums.”

Q. How long did your notes last in that snow considering you and Eddie Olczyk were positioned outside?

“About the second period. I was advised beforehand that a smart thing to do was to get plexiglass and put our notes underneath that and that made a lot of sense. But my background is to use Sharpies and to record different colors of Sharpies for the different teams so they have contrasting colors. But the trouble is when you took it out from underneath the plexiglass to do that and then you put it back in, invariably some of the rain and then later on, the snow that had melted would roll underneath the plexiglass and get on your notes and get on your scorecard.

“By the third period, it was starting to run pretty badly and then there was that one time when Eddie and I were on camera that it had all pretty well drained off and it was in bad shape. I save all of my scorecards, so I still have that but it’s practically illegible. There are only a few things you can read on it.”

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Q. Has your call of an outdoor game evolved since that very first one?

“Well, what has evolved is this: it’s not the description of the game because I don’t prepare anything odd to say because it’s an outdoor game. I’m just calling a hockey game and I realize I’m pre-occupied more with the event than I am a game. In terms of who has the puck and describing passes and things like that, I don’t do as much as that. Part of the reason is that it is more of an event for people who may or not watch a lot of hockey. Secondly, our location is outdoors down next to the penalty box and it is somewhat difficult to see from either the press box in these giant stadiums or down near the penalty box because you can see really well in front of you, but to the sides you have difficulty and you have to shift to a monitor. You adjust somewhat and try not to be as precise and as descriptive of who has the puck now for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a little bit much for a non-hockey crowd, and two, you’re not really able to accomplish it and you recognize it going in it is an imperfect science, but the science stuff is not what the day is about. It’s about celebrating the sport outdoors where a lot of these guys, despite the fact that we’ve doing it 10 years, grew up playing.”

Q. Do you a favorite Winter Classic venue?

“The reason I like Fenway [Park], Michigan [Stadium] and Ralph Wilson [Stadium], was No. 1, it snowed at least either all day or part of the day; it was cold and all three games went to extra time. There are a lot of other reasons why I liked the three, but those are the three common grounds that they share. I like the fact that Michigan had the biggest crowd of all and is probably not going to be topped.”

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Q. The call on Sidney Crosby’s famous winner in the shootout — “The game on his stick…” — do you have those lines planned out ahead of time for big moments?

“The game on his stick,’ I’ve only used that twice and that was the second time and the last time I recall ever using it was that day. It was just one of those things that crossed my mind at the time.

“It was the first year out of the lockout, Crosby’s rookie year. Eddie Olczyk is coaching the Penguins and they’re playing the Flyers in the regular season. John Davidson and I are doing it for OLN, which later became Versus, which later became NBCSN. Sid gets his teeth knocked out in the first period by Derien Hatcher. Konstantin Koltsov cranks a shot in the warmup and it hits Jocelyn Thibault, the regular goaltender for the Penguins, in the throat so he can’t play. So this kid, Marc-Andre Fleury, is just there and he winds up being put in goal for the game and stands on his head and makes 40-some saves and it gets into overtime. There’s an outlet pass [and] Sid gets a breakaway from center ice on in and it just came “with the game on his stick.” I thought out of a dramatic game, a guy gets his teeth knocked out and here it is, his rookie year, and they’re underdogs playing in Philadelphia and this game could end here…

“We’re in the sixth shot of the shootout and this could be the last shot, so you take a chance because if Ryan Miller stops him, then we move on. But as it turned out, Sid scored on it so it’s remembered more for that. I can’t recall ever using it since.”

Q. You mentioned your favorite venues before. Do you have a favorite moment or goal from the games you’ve done?

“I guess the ones that ended of those three games because they drew to an ending of a chapter of a Winter Classic that was kind of marvelous. I think in terms of the fans, the game at Michigan Stadium was probably the most exciting from what was going on in the stands because you had 105,000 people and it was almost 50/50 because of all the Toronto fans that were in Canada, 20 or 30 miles away from Ann Arbor, and they got hold of the tickets. It was the blue and red throng there of 105,000, and so when one team scored it was about as loud as when the other team scored. That was an interesting dynamic… For drama, the most dramatic of the games would have been Crosby’s.

“We still haven’t had in the Winter Classic a shutout. So, who knows? Maybe we’ll see that this year.”

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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.

Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

Pittsburgh Penguins are rolling

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The Pittsburgh Penguins sure look like a team that has won back to back Stanley Cups these days.

And there’s no shortage of reasons why.

Scoring has come in abundance during their current four-game winning streak, their longest of the season after taking down the hapless Buffalo Sabres 5-1 on Saturday. The Pens have lit the lamp no less than four times in each of those four games, scoring 19 during that span.

Some of their resurgence stems from Sidney Crosby returning to Sidney Crosby form.

Crosby has been lights out, sporting a six-game point streak (including a five-game goal-scoring streak) with six goals and seven assists. Crosby had struggled prior to his recent outburst, with just one goal and five assists in his previous 14 games before embarking on the heater.

Stick with scoring, another one of Pittsburgh’s keys to success during their winning streak has been scoring first.

The Penguins are now 13-2-2 when scoring first, as opposed to 2-8-1 when their opponent finds twine before they do. Furthermore, Pittsburgh has yet to lose in regulation when leading after 20 minutes, going 9-0-1 this season.

And perhaps most importantly, the fall off in the crease with Matt Murray out of the lineup with a lower-body injury has been non-existent.

Tristan Jarry has been a godsend to a team that looked to be in trouble when Murray exited a game earlier this week.

But Jarry recorded a shutout on Friday night against the Sabres and then allowed just one goal on 32 shots on Saturday against that same Buffalo team.

Jarry and Co. have a much stiffer schedule on the horizon, with dates against the high-flying New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs over the next week.

But they’re far from looking ill-equipped, even with Murray out for the next couple of weeks.


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

The Buzzer: Shutouts, a hat trick and Vegas keeps rolling

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Players of the Night

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: In his first start since Nov. 2 Price stopped all 36 shots he faced from the Buffalo Sabres during a 3-0 victory. The shutout was the 40th of his career and first this season to help the Habs end a five-game losing skid. Price is now the fourth goalie in Canadiens history to record 40 shutouts.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Jones recorded his second shutout of the season and 17th of his career as the Sharks blanked the Winnipeg Jets 4-0. Logan Couture scored twice and Jones made 38 saves, including 29 over the final 40 minutes, in the victory.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Ovechkin had a special night and created one for a fan as his hat trick, which tied Pavel Bure for most in NHL history by a Russian-born player, powered the Capitals by the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2. Before the game, Ovechkin met Alex Luey, a 13-year-old bone cancer survivor, and the Washington captain delivered on a promise to score and created a memory for a lifetime.

Highlight of the NightNot going to beat what Ovi did, so here’s runner-up Brendan Perlini providing a highlight for the Coyotes:

MISC:

Brian Gibbonstremendous season continued as he potted his 11th of the season 2:32 into overtime to give the New Jersey Devils a 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Jaroslav Halak made 31 saves and Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle provided the goals as the New York Islanders edged the Ottawa Senators 2-1 for their sixth win in seven games. Matt Duchene scored his first goal with the Senators in the loss.

Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel each scored twice to power the Pittsburgh Penguins by the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2. Kessel also added two assists for a four-point night, while the Penguins captain had a helper of his own to finish with three points on the evening.

Chris Kunitz returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since signing with the Lightning and received his 2017 Stanley Cup before the game:

Corey Crawford’s great season continued as his 37 saves and three points from captain Jonathan Toews helped the Chicago Blackhawks down the Florida Panthers 4-1.

• Oh, look, another night, and some more goals from Jaden Schwartz, whose pair helped the St. Louis Blues double up the Minnesota Wild 6-3. The Blues lead the NHL in points with 35 through 24 games and are tied for third in scoring with 84 goals.

William Karlsson potted his 13th of the season as the Vegas Golden Knights won their fifth in a row by defeating the Arizona Coyotes 4-2. Jonathan Marchessault ended the night with a goal and two assists.

David Rittich recorded his first NHL win with 24 stops during a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. Micheal Ferland and Mikael Backlund scored 22 seconds apart in the final minute of the second period to snap a 1-1 deadlock.

Trevor Lewis‘ goal in the fourth round of the shootout was the difference as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Anaheim Ducks 2-1. Anaheim was 1:32 from clinching a 1-0 win when Dustin Brown scored his ninth of the season to send the game to overtime. Jonathan Quick made 25 saves in overtime and regulation.

Kevin Bieksa brought out the Superman punch again, as Andy Andreoff found out:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Capitals 4, Maple Leafs 2
Canadiens 3, Sabres 0
Islanders 2, Senators 1
Devils 4, Red Wings 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Panthers 1
Penguins 5, Lightning 2
Golden Knights 4, Coyotes 2
Blues 6, Wild 3
Flames 3, Avalanche 2
Sharks 4, Jets 0
Kings 2, Ducks 1 (SO)

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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.

Crosby, McDavid focusing on teams, not 1-on-1 matchup

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The fan in Connor McDavid comes out whenever he sees Sidney Crosby‘s familiar No. 87 on TV.

”When you’re watching, you’re hoping for him to do something cool,” the Edmonton Oilers star said.

Defending one of his childhood idols is another matter entirely. McDavid will get an up-close look when the Oilers visit Crosby and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.

”If you want to model yourself after someone, I think he’s as good a guy as you can get,” said McDavid, who has three goals and five assists through seven games. ”He’s won just about anything there is to win in hockey: individual awards, team awards. You name it, he’s got it. If you’re a young guy like me, that’s what you want to do with your career.”

While Crosby totally gets why sharing the ice with McDavid is a thing, he’d rather not talk about it.

”I think there’s always matchups, storylines and things like that … but we’re just going to go out there and play,” said Crosby, who has five goals and five assists.

At the moment, Crosby and the Penguins have more pressing matters than the hype that accompanies the biannual meeting between two of the NHL’s brightest lights.

The Penguins placed goaltender Antti Niemi on waivers on Monday just three games into his tenure as Matt Murray‘s backup, called up rookie Casey DeSmith from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes Barre/Scranton and acquired forward Riley Sheahan from Detroit over the weekend to address their need for a third-line center. The Oilers, meanwhile, are off to a slow start following their first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

Pittsburgh swept Edmonton last season, a testament to the depth around Crosby. Crosby was held without a point while McDavid had a goal and three assists in the two games.

”They were two really, really entertaining games,” McDavid said. ”Obviously you hope for that and hope for a better result.”

The 30-year-old Crosby and the 20-year-old McDavid are separated by a decade but little else.

They finished one-two in Hart Trophy voting last year, with McDavid and his league-leading 100 points edging Crosby and his NHL-high 44 goals. For a while last spring it appeared they were on a collision course for the Stanley Cup Final until the Oilers blew a 3-1 lead against Anaheim in the second round.

It’s not unlike the path Crosby and the Penguins followed shortly after he made his NHL debut in 2005. Pittsburgh reached the postseason in Crosby’s second year. The Penguins reached the Cup final in his third year. In his fourth, he raised the Cup with the franchise’s third championship.

”I can only speak of my experience, going to the final and losing was a really good experience for us as a group,” Crosby said. ”Going through that it’s something you learn through.”

The Oilers are hoping last spring can serve as a launching pad for McDavid, whose vision and speed make him a nightmare matchup for anyone tasked with trying to keep up. The responsibility will fall largely on Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, who should see plenty of McDavid’s No. 97 on Tuesday.

”I just think what’s tough for a defenseman is sometimes a guy can go fast in a straight line and he doesn’t have his head up, he’s just worried about beating you wide,” said Letang, one of the fastest skaters in the league. ”This guy is like looking straight into your eyes and he’s going full speed so you’re like ”Oh (no), what is he going to do?”’

Asked to compare McDavid’s quickness to another player outside his own dressing room, Letang responded: ”No one is near that guy.”

Oilers coach Todd McLellan will try to find a balance between figuring out a way to steer his team out of its early funk while also appreciating the special talent on the ice.

”It will come down to team play but you do appreciate as a coach, a fan, even a player, their skill set and what they brought to their teams and their communities,” McLellan said. ”Even off the rink, both of them are tremendous that way. It’s fun when they’re together.”