Five Thoughts: Alain Vigneault’s crazy gamble; A pair of bad hits make us weary

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With so many things cropping up yesterday there’s plenty of thoughts to get to. Before those thoughts, let’s give it up to the Nashville Predators for advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in team history. There are a lot of great stories on that team to be told and it’s great that they’ll get more looks on television to tell them. Hockey in the honkytonk is for real. As for everything else on our minds, let’s have a look.

1. If for nothing else, you have to give Canucks coach Alain Vigneault credit for having gigantic brass ones. Opting to start Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo in Game 6 is as unexpected of a move as he could make. Even though Luongo’s struggled in his previous two games, making a move that bold takes guts or a touch of insanity. Schneider played well when he wasn’t handling the puck, but that was one of the risks with going with your backup goalie to start so deep into a series. The communication between Schneider and his defensemen obviously wasn’t there and the first two goals he allowed were due to that unfamiliarity. The Canucks didn’t come away with the win so that leads us to our next thought.

2. Now the big debate will center around who gets the start in Game 7 for Vancouver. The Blackhawks have all the momentum now and for whatever reason Vigneault started Schneider you have to wonder if that applies to Game 7 now. Schneider left Game 6 after giving up a penalty shot goal to Michal Frolik. While it looked like it could’ve been a bad injury, it turns out he cramped up badly and will be available for Game 7.

We’ve seen the goaltending debate go on in Philadelphia and now sparking up in San Jose during these playoffs, but is this actually happening in Vancouver? Seems like it is and that’s what makes all of this all the more stunning. What an incredible meltdown from the team that seemed ready to roll through the playoffs.

3. How fun must it be to be Chicago’s Ben Smith? Smith is a former Boston College standout who rode shotgun to two national championships with the Eagles in 2008 and 2010. In 2008 he played alongside Nathan Gerbe and in 2010 he was playing wingman to Chris Kreider and Cam Atkinson. This year he was a late season call-up for Chicago who played in six regular season games and scored one goal. Now six games into the playoffs he has three goals and scored the game-winner in Game 6 and has helped Chicago to the verge of pulling a titanic upset in the first round. Not too bad for a kid who was a sixth round pick in 2008.

4. Many people who are a lot smarter about hockey than I ever will be believe that Flyers captain Mike Richards will not be suspended for his nasty shove from behind on Tim Connolly that knocked Connolly out of the game with a head injury. Richards was given a minor penalty for boarding on the play and for Connolly it’s a brutal hit because of his past concussion problems.

I respect their takes on that play, but it’s hard for me to believe that there wasn’t some ill intent on that play. Perhaps it’s more emotion than rational thinking speaking here as careless plays like that make me sick to my stomach, but if I were in Colin Campbell’s position chances are I’d be a hated man in Philadelphia for the way I’d rule on that play. There was no need for Richards to check or push Connolly on that play. You want to make a play there, go for the puck not smearing the player.

5. Expect a lot more talk about the mysterious “hitting zone” behind the net today. Chicago’s Bryan Bickell caught Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa with a very obvious head shot that was virtually the same kind of hit Raffi Torres delivered to Brent Seabrook. There was no penalty on the play and Bieksa was slow in getting to his feet. Obviously the standard has been set now, but it certainly didn’t take long for there to be a hit that was virtually identical in it’s violence. That’s one very dangerous precedent the league has set concerning hits in that location of that manner. If you’re behind the net there should be a sign saying “Welcome to Thunderdome” from now on.

Flyers’ Gudas suspended two games for high-sticking

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Wednesday afternoon that Philadelphia Flyers defender Radko Gudas has been suspended two games for a high-sticking incident that took place on Monday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Gudas was assessed a two-minute minor for high-sticking Nikita Kucherov, the NHL’s leading-scorer, in the third period of the Lightning’s 5-2 win when he brought his stick down over Kucherov’s head with a two-handed swing.

Here is a look at the play, as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

The DoPS said that while it agreed with Gudas’ assessment that it was not an overly violent swing, it was still an act that warranted a penalty during the play and some sort of supplemental discipline, whether it be a warning, fine or suspension. They go on to say that this incident rose to the level of a suspension because of Gudas’ past history that includes a 10-game suspension for a stick-swinging incident against the Winnipeg Jets back in 2017.

Overall this is the fourth time in his career that Gudas has been suspended with all of them now adding up to 21 games.

He will miss the Flyers’ next two games against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night and the Stadium Series game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

The DoPS also fined Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg $3,091.40, the maximum allowable under the CBA, for interference against Lightning forward Cedric Paquette.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blackhawks are back in playoff race, but are they a serious threat?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It was barely one month ago that the Chicago Blackhawks had the worst record in the NHL. Not just one of the worst, but the absolute worst. Dead last and sitting in the basement all by themselves.

They had just 41 points in their first 49 games, their season looked lost even in the lackluster and historically weak Western Conference, and it was time to start looking at what veterans could — or would — be shipped out before the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline in an effort to clear future salary cap space off the books. A second-consecutive non-playoff season seemed to be a given.

Truthfully, that is probably the position they should still be in. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings (6:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) they have won just 25 of their first 60 games and are only on pace for 80 points this season. But because of the incompetence of everyone else in the West to secure the two wild card spots, as well as an 11-game stretch where they have won nine games, the Blackhawks once again find themselves firmly in the playoff race just one point back.

They also have an opportunity to keep that stretch rolling as only three of their next nine games are against teams currently in a playoff spot, and two of those three games are against a Dallas Stars team that is right there on the playoff bubble with the Blackhawks. All of it is a great opportunity to come back from the basement and salvage what looked to be a complete failure of a season.

While acknowledging that the biggest factor in their place in the race is the current state of the West, the Blackhawks do deserve some credit for turning their season around over the past month.

They still had to win those games, and they have put themselves in a position to make a serious run at a playoff spot.

How have they done it, and is it something the rest of the Western Conference should be worried about?

Their stars have carried the offense

On Wednesday morning, our Joey Alfieri wrote about the resurgence of Jonathan Toews this season after several years of decline, and he has been outstanding over the past 11 games with a team-leading 10 goals and eight assists during the Blackhawks’ climb up the standings.

He is not the only one that has leading the charge.

Patrick Kane has been arguably the hottest player in the entire league over the past month with 26 points since Jan. 17. That run has helped him climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard and has him in second place with 90 points. Overall, this has been by far the best offensive season of his career — even better than the 2015-16 season when he won the Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy. His current point pace has him on track for 125 points this season.

Then there is Alex DeBrincat. The second-year standout has taken a massive leap forward this year and has already blown away all of his rookie year totals with still 22 games remaining on the schedule. He continues to look like the steal of his draft class and another reminder as to why teams should never overlook the skillful, undersized player that has shown an ability to fill the net.

There is no replacement for high-end talent, and for all of the flaws the Blackhawks have they still have plenty of impact players sprinkled throughout their roster and they are shining for them right now.

Dylan Strome has been a home run

In a lot of ways he has looked like the players thought the Arizona Coyotes were getting when they selected him with the No. 3 overall pick a few years ago.

The 22-year-old Strome has made the most of his opportunity in Chicago and enters play on Wednesday night with 35 points in 36 games, including 19 points over his past 11 games. This was always a great gamble for the Blackhawks because they needed to find young, cheap players that might be able to make an impact around their core of aging, high-priced veterans. They still have him for one more full year at an entry-level price of $863,000. If they can get this sort of production out of him over a full season at that cost he could be a game-changing presence in the Blackhawks’ lineup.

Simply put, they’ve been lucky

This can not be overlooked because it is probably the biggest factor in the turnaround.

They have been lucky in the sense that the bottom half of the West is a raging inferno of a dumpster fire. Even with this most recent stretch of strong play they are still, again, on pace for only 80 points. That point total in the West a year ago would have been 15 points short of a playoff spot. Eighty-seven points is the low-end total for a playoff team in the salary cap era, and it seems to be a given that floor is going to be shattered this season with one of these teams sneaking in.

Even with the recent hot streak and the great offensive performances from their top players the Blackhawks still aren’t playing all that great as a team in some very key areas.

Their possession and scoring chance numbers during 5-on-5 play are among the worst in the league since Jan. 17, while they are giving up 3.34 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play which is the absolute worst mark in the league during that stretch.

What has saved them has been the scoring from their top players, but even that seems like a hot streak that’s going to cool off.

As a team the Blackhawks have scored on more than 10 percent of their 5-on-5 shots during this stretch, the second highest mark in the league. When you break it down to an individual level it’s simply a lot of great players that have all hit a hot streak at the same time. They currently have five players that are carrying shooting percentage of 17.6 percent or higher over the past month, including four that are over 22 percent and three that are over 24 percent.

Nobody consistently scores on a quarter of their shots over an extended period of time, no matter how talented they are.

That should be the concern here.

Once some of that shooting luck dries up (and it will) there is not much else going on here to bail the Blackhawks out.

They are not good defensively, their goaltending is a huge question mark, and they don’t really dominate possession the way they did in their glory years. This has the look of a team that simply got on a hot run with the schedule falling in their favor a little bit. Had it not been for the circumstances of the Western Conference playoff field we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. Keep in mind, this recent stretch isn’t even as good as what the Philadelphia Flyers have done over the past month-and-a-half (13-3-1 over their past 17 games!) and they’re not even within serious striking distance of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Because of the competition (or lack thereof) around them, as well as the their upcoming schedule, the Blackhawks have a pretty good shot to actually pull this off and get in the playoffs. Once you get in there is always a chance that something crazy could happen in a seven-game series, and given that both potential top seeds in the West (San Jose and Calgary) have pretty big question marks in goal right now the potential for an upset could be there, especially if the Blackhawks’ shooters could get hot again. Where the Blackhawks have to be careful is thinking that this dramatically changes the big picture outlook for the team.

Getting in the playoffs this season, in this manner, with this roster doesn’t mean their championship window is opening back up. This is still a top-heavy team with some bad contracts and big holes that is, for the time being, taking advantage of the circumstances around it.

For the first time in his career, Mike Tirico will call play-by-play for an NHL game on Wednesday when the Red Wings host the Blackhawks. He’ll be joined in the booth by Eddie Olczyk and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals waive Stanley Cup hero Smith-Pelly

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When the Washington Capitals signed Devante Smith-Pelly to a one-year contract before the 2017-18 season they probably were not expecting him to play such a huge role in a Stanley Cup winning season.

He turned out to be one of the surprising heroes of their championship run by scoring seven postseason goals, three of them coming in the Stanley Cup Final series against the Vegas Golden Knights, including the game-tying goal in their clinching Game 5 win.

That postseason performance reportedly resulted in him getting an opportunity to secure a multi-year deal in free agency over the summer. He turned down that opportunity to re-sign with the Capitals on a one-year, $1 million contract.

On Wednesday, the team placed him on waivers in what is another reminder of what a harsh, bottom line business professional sports is.

Harsh as it may be, it’s also not totally unjustified. It has been an extremely tough year for the 26-year-old winger who enters Wednesday with just four goals and four assists in 54 games and some of the worst possession numbers on the team. He also hasn’t seemed to fully capture the trust of first-year coach Todd Rierden after showing up to camp and not meeting certain team conditioning standards. Now he finds himself on waivers.

What is perhaps most interesting about the move is Reirden said the team had initially planned to waive Dmitrij Jaskin but changed their mind, and that there are a lot of moving parts right now. That would seem to indicate that a trade could be on the horizon.

Given that Smith-Pelly doesn’t have a huge contract or cap hit and was so successful in the playoffs a year ago there is always a chance a playoff team could take a shot on claiming him.

Smith-Pelly has 44 goals and 57 assists in 395 career regular season games with the Capitals, Ducks, Canadiens, and Devils. He has not recorded a point in 17 consecutive games.

MORE: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Players brace for moves as NHL trade deadline approaches

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By John Wawrow (AP Hockey Writer)

Thomas Vanek remembers waking up in Edmonton, Alberta, and turning on the TV in his hotel room to find out where he was heading.

It was March 5, 2014, the NHL’s trade deadline day, and Vanek’s bags were packed. He knew he had played his final game a few days earlier for the New York Islanders after rejecting the team’s bid to sign the pending free agent to a contract extension.

It wasn’t until the deadline passed when Vanek’s phone started ringing. It wasn’t his agent, the Islanders or some other team’s general manager.

”I got a message from a reporter saying, ‘The Montreal media wants to talk to you,” said Vanek, recalling how he found out he’d been traded to the Canadiens. ”That was probably the hardest one because it was my first trade deadline deal.”

It wouldn’t be his last.

The 35-year-old Vanek, now in his second stint with Detroit, has been dealt twice more at the deadline. Red Wings GM Ken Holland informed Vanek he was being traded to Florida on March 1, 2017. And he learned through a friend’s text message that Vancouver had sent him to Columbus last Feb. 26.

Though the one-year contract he signed with Detroit last summer includes a no-trade clause, there remains a chance he’ll move once again before this season’s deadline on Monday.

”There’s a reason I came back to Detroit because I like it here,” he said. ”But at the same time, who knows what’s going to happen? Kenny’s always talking. So if something comes up that makes complete sense, then we’ll take a look at it.”

The trading has already begun, with the most notable featuring Toronto’s acquisition of defenseman Jake Muzzin in a deal with Los Angeles on Jan. 28.

Otherwise, the trade market remains bottled up with more prospective buyers than sellers. Of the 31 teams, 25 are either in contention or within six points of their conference’s eighth and final playoff spot entering play Wednesday.

Among the more notable players considered on the market are forwards Artemi Panarin (Columbus), Derick Brassard (Florida), Gustav Nyquist (Detroit), New York Rangers Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello, and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. And then there’s the Ottawa Senators, who are attempting to determine the trade status of forwards Matt Duchene, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel, all of whom are eligible to become free agents this summer.

Last year’s deadline featured 18 trades involving 37 players, including the Sabres dealing Evander Kane to San Jose, St. Louis sending Paul Stastny to Winnipeg and the Rangers moving Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay.

Few of the deals made an impact in their team’s’ respective playoff runs. The Lightning reached the Eastern Conference finals, but they were defeated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, whose most notable late-season addition was defenseman Michal Kempny (acquired in a trade with Chicago a week before the deadline).

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Final despite getting limited production from trade-deadline addition Tomas Tatar. San Jose made it to the second round before being eliminated, but re-signed Kane.

None of the deals came close to matching what’s considered the NHL’s gold standard on March 10, 1980. That’s when the Islanders acquired Butch Goring from Los Angeles to spark what became New York’s run of winning four consecutive championships. Goring wasn’t happy about the deal that also sent forward Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis to the Kings.

”It was very upsetting because I was on the second year of a six-year contract and had made a commitment to basically spend my entire career in L.A.,” Goring recalled.

It didn’t take long to get over the shock for the then-30-year-old, who had scored 20 or more goals nine times during his 10-plus seasons with the Kings.

With Goring, the Islanders closed the season 8-0-4 and lost just six times in the playoffs in winning the Final in six games over Philadelphia. The following year, Goring was named the playoff MVP.

He called the adjustment joining a star-packed Islanders team as less intimidating than it might have been as a younger player.

”I came into that dressing room and I didn’t have anything to prove. I had a pretty strong reputation about who I was and what I couldn’t do,” Goring said. ”I wasn’t taking Bryan Trottier’s job. I was there to be who I was.”

Now an Islanders broadcaster, Goring refers to the trade as the ”icing on the cake” of his career.

”Nobody knew much about Butch Goring, as I played all those years in L.A. There was no exposure,” he said. ”And now everyone remembers who you are. The great thing about the trade deadline is everybody talks about Butch Goring.”

DEADLINE DAY

Vanek wondered if the deadline falls too late in the season for players to become comfortable with their new surroundings.

”The only thing you can control is being a good person, being a good teammate,” he said. ”But at the same time, the team that gets you, they want you to be productive. And that’s the hard part.”

Goring doesn’t think so, noting the trade deadline used to be 26 days before the end of the season and now is 40.

”If you’re going to acquire a player that’s going to be a difference maker, he’s going to adapt in a hurry,” Goring said.

Red Wings GM Holland backs the current deadline.

”For those teams that are buyers, you still have 20 games to get that player acclimated to your system. For the teams that aren’t sure if they’re buyers or sellers, it gives them more time,” Holland said.

PLANES, UBERS AND FLAT TIRES

Ryan Hartman won’t soon forget what happened when traded by Chicago to Nashville at last year’s deadline.

With a stop-over in Toronto, it took him 8 hours to fly from Chicago to Winnipeg, where he would join the Predators. And that was after beginning the day contending with a flat tire. He used Uber to get to the Blackhawks practice and then had to use it again – this time with all his equipment – to return home and pack before heading to the airport.

”I had an issue with it all year and someone told me at the beginning of the year, ‘You’re going to end up getting a flat tire at the worst time possible,”’ Hartman said. ”Sure enough.”

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Points: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 99; Goals: Alexander Ovechkin (Washington), 42; Longest point streak: Patrick Kane (Chicago) 18 games (Jan. 3 to present); Rookie points: Elias Petterson (Vancouver), 54; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas) 29.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Colorado Avalanche visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday in a game between two Western Conference wild-card contenders.

AP Hockey Writers Larry Lage and Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this story.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports