NCAA hockey going with new “super conferences” a dangerous route to take

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With college hockey becoming more well known to mainstream sports fans with the proliferation of the Frozen Four and more games appearing on cable TV, many people around the NCAA feel like it’s their time to seize the day. The first shot in this happened when Terry Pegula gave Penn State $80 million to help start the varsity program there that will begin play in 2012.

Penn State joining the varsity ranks helped give rise to the Big Ten Conference in hockey, a group that will pull teams out of both the CCHA and WCHA to form their own little party as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State will team up with Penn State to form their own league.

That drastic move that awaits in a few years meant that the WCHA lost two of their biggest earning and drawing teams and the CCHA essentially lost their lifeline with the two Michigan schools. Everyone else that will be left behind in 2013-2014 when the Big Ten comes to order would be left trying to figure out what in the world they’re going to do. As it turns out, six schools figured things out on their own and will form a “super conference” of their own that will see North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, and Miami University form the Collegiate Hockey Conference that will start in 2013-2014 as well.

Left on the outside looking in are the rest of the teams from the soon-to-be-defunct WCHA and CCHA (St. Cloud, Mankato State, Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage; Alabama-Huntsville is already independent) with a future that is uncertain at best. Ryan Lambert from Yahoo’s! Puck Daddy says that the start-up of this new conference along with the Big Ten Conference means that pain is on the way to those who are left behind.

What they’ve essentially done is left other programs for dead. Far be it for me to advocate a welfare system in college hockey, but what the hell, one has existed for years anyway. The NCAA has been giving autobids to shall-we-say undeserving conferences for years, and how much good has it done them? Next to none. Teams and conferences have been folding left and right in the last few years, and no one seems particularly concerned about the state of the sport at the college except for people who want to write weepy eulogies to teams no one cared about at relatively small schools that can’t support the team without the money brought in by bigger teams. Imagine what a weekend’s worth of gate receipts against Minnesota or NoDak means to teams like Michigan Tech.

By creating this new conference, the six teams are ensuring their own insulation from the fallout created by the Big Ten by shoving smaller teams into its path.

On the opposite side of this view, there are those that think by doing things this way that college hockey can become more of a draw for television and that by breaking everyone into this odd sort of caste system will make life better for those who are able to keep up. Minnesota-Duluth radio play-by-play man and former Fanhouse writer Bruce Ciskie makes his case for why this isn’t the death knell for college hockey.

It’s a chance for the schools in Minnesota and upper Michigan to build new rivalries that will excite the fans. It’s a chance for all of them to get into a situation where they are battling peer schools for recruits, as opposed to trying to recruit against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

We could end up not losing programs, giving more teams a real chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and we are setting up a league structure that allows for future expansion if it becomes feasible for someone to add the sport. If this scenario plays out, tell me how this isn’t a good thing for college hockey, a sport that simply needs to find ways to expand.

The possibilities are there for this pan out well and pay off for college hockey, but by creating groups of “haves” and “have nots” which is what this new set up will do is dangerous for a sport that’s both expensive for schools to budget and one without a definitive television presence to help pay the bills. With these conferences all breaking off and doing their own thing, doing so and seemingly having it happen without regard to the schools struggling to stay afloat isn’t wise.

College hockey is the ultimate niche in what’s a niche sport as it is. With the NHL being fourth among the professional sports and college hockey being on very few radars, potentially losing programs to send players to reeks of cutting off the nose to spite the face. You can argue about the merits of the schools that might fail and disappear (Bowling Green and Alabama-Huntsville top the short list) but in a world that sees the number of FBS football programs slowly increasing and the number of D-I college basketball programs on the rise as well, having programs fail and reduce the playing field is brutally unwise.

Perhaps things will work out the way Ciskie sees it and things will work for the betterment of the game and see a rise in the number of programs and a rise in attention for the sport, but with so many things up in the air right now it’s hard to believe that smaller schools can withstand the blow of losing all of their big money conference rivals. Creating a second class in a sport that needs all the help it can get is a dicey proposition. For college hockey fans and supporters, they’ll have to wait to find out who’s right in the end. Here’s to hoping those in charge have their act together and aren’t looking for the neck-saving cash grab.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better goaltending?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

If there was ever a time to string together back-to-back shutouts, Braden Holtby doing so in Game 6 and then again in Game 7 to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final was as near to perfect as it gets.

If the playoffs change the National Hockey League to the National Goaltending League (as Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice suggested earlier this postseason), then a goalie getting hot right before the Cup Final can’t be a bad thing. But aside from a three-game stretch against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, Holtby has been relatively solid and showed up in games where Washington needs him most.

Holtby seems to have benefitted from that late-season rest — and even losing his starting job at one point — and bounced back to put up a .938 save percentage in 5-on-5 situations in the playoffs.

Holtby’s GSAA (goals save above average) — an important analytic that will crop up later in this post — is second highest at 6.1.

It’s crucial that Holtby’s confidence needs to carry through to the Cup Final.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

To win the Stanley Cup, the Capitals will have to do something no other team has done in these playoffs: solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury’s numbers are simply incredible to look at:

  • Save percentage: .947
  • 5-on-5 save percentage: .960
  • High-danger save percentage. .929
  • GSAA: 13.89

That GSAA number is more than double that of Holtby’s and over four times higher than anyone else. That’s astounding, and a testament to how good Fleury has been compared to any other goalie in the playoffs.

Beyond this season, Fleury is putting up historic numbers.

Fleury faced a tall task in the Western Conference Final, going up against the second-highest goal-scoring team in the NHL this season in the Jets. There would be no buckling under the pressure of Winnipeg’s shooters though as he limited the Jets to just 10 goals in the five-game series.

The Jets tried a lot of things, including throwing people in front of Fleury. It was all futile. He was simply too good.

And even when all seemed to be lost, he did this:

Advantage: Golden Knights

The edge here has to favor the Golden Knights.

Fleury has Holtby beat by nearly every metric that matters. He’s been the better goalie and seems just a half-second quicker than anyone else. His anticipation of shots has been on-point and he’s seeing everything, even with traffic in front of him.

If Fleury keeps his .950 save percentage going, Washington has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the Stanley Cup. This is a simple truth. But can he? He’s doing things no one before has, including himself. There’s always a risk of fall off here with any numbers that are abnormally high.

Washington needs to emulate what Winnipeg did in Game 1 of the WCF if they want success. Get to Fleury, get to him quick and try and fluster him. It’s a tall task, but one that must be done.

Fleury frustrated Patrik Laine in the last round and could end up doing the same against Alex Ovechkin in the Final.

If you’re looking for more on this matchup, there’s a very good, in-depth breakdown here.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
• Who has better special teams?
Who has better coaching?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


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

Defenders as important to Fleury, as he is to Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS (AP) Marc-Andre Fleury has been the foundation for the Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Yet while he has a 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage, he’ll be the first one in the locker room to credit the defensemen in front of him.

“It’s a team game – win as a team, lose as a team,” said Fleury, who looks to become the 11th goaltender in NHL history to have his name on the Cup at least four times – and the fourth of that group to win with multiple teams.

“These guys are a big part of our success. We’re well balanced, we got some veteran guys, some younger guys, got some offensive guys, some defensive guys playing together. Those guys have been rallying all playoffs, trying to help me out, blocking shots and letting me see the puck, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

The pairings of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland, and Colin Miller with Luca Sbisa or Jon Merrill, have helped the Golden Knights become a very tight defensive team during the playoffs, something that will have to carry into Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena, on Monday against the Washington Capitals.

Schmidt has developed into the team’s top defenseman after struggling to find consistent ice time in Washington last season, when he averaged 15:29 on the ice. The fifth-year pro leads the Golden Knights with an average 22:14 on the ice and brings a familiarity to the Final, having played with Washington’s top scorers Evgeny Kuznetsov (24 points) and Alex Ovechkin (22), who rank first and second, respectively, in overall playoff scoring.

“I know a lot of those guys, I know what they like to do,” said Schmidt, who has six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the postseason. “For what I want to do on the ice, it helps me and I think it helps our group as well that we’ve had success against them. But it’s a whole other type of animal this time of year.”

The Golden Knights swept the regular-season series against Washington, winning 3-0 on Dec. 23 in Vegas and 4-3 on Feb. 4 in D.C.

With five more Capitals have double-digit points – Nicklas Backstrom (16), John Carlson (16), T.J. Oshie (15), Lars Eller (13) and Tom Wilson (11) – Vegas will need one last big effort from a defensive group that has helped allow the second-least number of goals among playoff teams that have played 10 games.

Washington coach Barry Trotz said he knows the Golden Knights have three dynamic duos that each feature one offensive guy who can skate and move the puck – that being Miller, Theodore, and Schmidt – paired with more of a traditional stay-at-home defenseman who isn’t afraid to get physical, block shots and slow the opposing team’s pace – such as Sbisa, Engelland, Merrill and McNabb.

“But they still bring some offense, too,” Trotz said. “They play 5-5-5 all three zones just as we talk about with the Capitals. Watch the TV, you see five guys in the picture, then you’re doing good.”

Schmidt said using speed against them worked during the regular season, by moving their feet more than Washington did, and helping to develop plays in transition. But again, this is the Stanley Cup Final, and Schmidt said he knows Washington can skate well and will be a challenge.

“I think another thing is just making sure you’re really disciplined against this team,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to make sure you stay out of the penalty box, keep Ovechkin off the power play and keep that unit off the power play.”

To Vegas’ credit, however, it does have the fourth-best penalty kill in the playoffs, stopping 82.5 percent of the power plays it has seen. And, as Sbisa said, that circles back to Fleury and the chemistry that’s been built with the defensive pairings.

“That bond is definitely there,” Sbisa said. “You don’t have to worry about anything else, play it loose, play to your strengths and that’s what we’ve been doing as a group. The six Ds that are playing that night, they’re tight; we play as a three-man group (with Fleury). Flower’s a guy that doesn’t take too much credit for himself, even though he should, because he’s been that good and it’s obviously nice to hear stuff like that coming out of his mouth. But he definitely deserves all the credit here.

“As a D-man, knowing that you have the best goalie in the world behind you, saving you when something happens, it makes a huge difference because it allows you to play your game. Praise has to go both ways.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Ovechkin slays demons on first trip to Stanley Cup Final

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Raw emotion came from Alex Ovechkin as he wore an “Eastern Conference champions” hat for the first time.

“Oh my God,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t explain my emotions. I’m just happy for my boys, for organizations, for fans. Finally.”

Finally.

Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will play for the Stanley Cup. It’s a journey 14 years in the making from Ovechkin being the first overall draft pick to the greatest goal scorer of this generation – and a player who until this year hasn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs through little fault of his own. Yet he’s gotten an uneven proportion of the blame.

Ovechkin essentially willed the Capitals to the Cup Final with 12 goals, 10 assists and the best postseason of his career. In one spring, the 32-year-old Russian superstar has ended Washington’s 20-year final drought, slayed demons and destroyed the old narrative that he can’t get the job done when it matters most.

“The special thing is because we’re winning,” Ovechkin said before the Capitals left for Las Vegas. “That’s the whole thing. That’s all I can say. We win and we move forward. We’ve never been in this position before. All my career, I played for this team, and we never get the success like that.”

Ovechkin bore the brunt of nine playoff appearances ending after the first or second round despite being a point-a-game player. With time running out on chasing the trophy he knew all about as a kid, this season has featured a different-looking player.

General manager Brian MacLellan sees a new level of maturity on and off the ice that he believes comes from Ovechkin getting married. A different offseason training regimen allowed Ovechkin to produce more at even strength, and the result was an NHL-leading 49 goals.

“I think the way he plays this year is more within the team structure,” MacLellan said. “This is the most systematic he’s played throughout his career, in my mind.”

In the playoffs, Ovechkin has raised his game even further. His vintage physicality and his willingness to get his body in front of shots and hustle down ice on the backcheck have been noticeable.

“When you see him blocking shots, you see him coming back hard, you see him playing physical, he’s getting more and more excited,” linemate Tom Wilson said. “It seems like every round you win, he’s playing even harder. And that’s what you need out of your top guys. When he’s going, you’re aware he’s on the ice. Everyone in the building knows he’s on the ice.”

During the third round, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Ovechkin has “taken 14 years of frustration out in one playoffs.” Ovechkin is reluctant to talk about previous playoff disappointments, but they’ve been tied to him.

Even though this is a team sport, someone has to be the greatest player to never win the Cup. Until now, arguably that’s Ovechkin, a label he has the chance to shed beginning in Game 1 of the final Monday at the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

“He’s an elite player that shoulders the responsibility of how our team performs, whether that is fair or unfair, and I think that happens to all those elite players in the league,” MacLellan said. “They get built up when they win and they get torn down a little bit when they lose. It is not always fair, because it is a team game. And for him, he has shouldered a lot of the burden that has gone on here for the last 11 years or whatever the time period has been, and hopefully this is a time when he gets payback and enjoys it this year.”

Ovechkin is enjoying hockey seemingly like never before. Coach Barry Trotz wondered if being the face of the franchise and carrying the burden weighed on Ovechkin all those years.

Getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins and the second round made Ovechkin look “freer” in Trotz’s eyes.

“You want your top guys to be on a mission, and I think that has freed him to carry on the mission rather than have to explain why he didn’t go farther and have to do it every spring,” Trotz said. “He’s having fun. He’s producing. He’s all in. If you’re going to have success, you have to have all-in contribution, and he has. I think he’s enjoying the run, the playoffs, maybe for the first time in a long time.”

Since returning home to Washington after advancing to the Final, Ovechkin said fans have come up to him to say thank you, good job, and to express pride. But he doesn’t want to celebrate too much because he knows how difficult every step of the playoffs is to conquer.

“It’s hard. It’s not easy,” Ovechkin said. “This organization, it’s been too long to be in this position, and I’ve never been in this position. Only Brooks Orpik has won the Stanley Cup and been in the final. Now this group is excited and we’re ready to go.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set and it will be the Washington Capitals against the Vegas Golden Knights.

So many different storylines to consider. George McPhee vs. his old team. Alex Ovechkin going for his first ever Cup ring. Former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury against the Capitals. And the obvious one with the Golden Knights and their inaugural season success. It should be a fun one.

Here’s the full schedule:

Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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