What the NHL and NHLPA should learn from a year filled with tragic death

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There’s no way to be able to wrap your head around what’s happened off the ice in the hockey world this year.

Since the start of 2011 we’ve seen four tragic deaths. Sharks minor leaguer Tom Cavanaugh, Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, former Canucks tough guy Rick Rypien, and now recently retired scrapper Wade Belak. Of those four, three of them are believed to be suicides (Rypien’s cause of death is still yet unknown while Belak’s is suspected to be a suicide) and Boogaard’s came thanks to a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol all stemming from being upset with missing time thanks to post-concussion syndrome.

We’re not here to hypothesize on what caused these young men to reach that dark place where killing their body with toxins or taking their own life seemed like the right answer to the situation they were in. Doing that is a folly. Trying to figure out if the life of an NHL tough guy or a concussion victim leads to being consumed by the saddest of sad thoughts is too much for people not in the know to speculate on. While you could draw conclusions with a guy like Rypien, using the same methodology for a guy like Belak doesn’t make sense. We just don’t know what made these guys tick and that’s part of the frustration in dealing with their untimely deaths.

What needs to be looked at is how the NHL and the NHLPA are trying to take care of their troubled souls. Former NHL tough guys Tyson Nash and Matthew Barnaby took to Twitter to point the finger at the NHLPA for not helping players prepare for their post-career lives. In Belak’s case, this makes some sense although Belak wasn’t lacking in opportunity post-hockey. Belak was set to be a rinkside reporter for Predators broadcasts and was also set to compete on CBC’s Battle of the Blades celebrity figure skating competition.

The fact here remains that pro hockey players are guys that have been playing since childhood and have known a professional schedule lifestyle that consisted of virtually nothing but hockey. When it comes time to retire or if you’re forced out of the game by injury, it’s a colossal culture change for players which sometimes leaves guys feeling lost.

It’s the sort of situation that makes you think of the character Brooks from the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” After so many years on the inside of prison, when he was set free he became a lost soul unable to adapt to a new way of life on the outside. That’s not to say that the hockey lifestyle is like a prison, just that when everything you’ve ever known is thrown into disarray, if you’re not ready for it you can be left feeling swamped over.

Whether it comes from preparing players for their post-career lives, helping them with substance abuse, or getting them help when it feels like there’s no way out of the darkness that’s enveloping their lives being proactive to let the players know there’s help when they need it is the absolute least they can do and it has to start early.

The NFL and NBA hold rookie symposiums for incoming players to help them better prepare for the perils of being a professional athlete. Having the NHLPA and NHL work together to let players know that there is a program in place to help (the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program) can get the word out early and let it be known that help is there if needed. Whether the problems stem from abusing alcohol or pain killers, the assistance is there.

With depression is one of the most personal and most private mental illnesses, teaching players early on what the signs of it are and that reaching out for help when it’s needed. That’s not nearly enough to help those who are depressed, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Depression is such a difficult thing because even with proper counseling and a great circle of friends, it still might not be enough to save someone from their thoughts. Ignoring it, however, is not an option.

With  so much sadness and so many questions left unanswered for those players and their families, the time is now for the NHL and NHLPA to work together and make sure that sadness and avoidable tragedy will not happen in the future. One death is one too many, four is a sign of a much larger problem that must be addressed.

NHL playoffs showcase Russia’s goaltending renaissance

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EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Nikolai Khabibulin wakes up in Yekaterinburg to watch NHL playoff highlights and beams with pride at the saves made by so many Russian goaltenders.

For the first time, there were three Russian starting goaltenders in the conference finals, with Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning advancing to meet for the title. Countryman Semyon Varlamov and the New York Islanders fell to Tampa Bay in overtime in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night.

”It’s actually quite interesting to experience this because it has never happened before,” Khabibulin said. ”I would’ve never thought this would happen, but it is happening.”

From Hall of Famer Vladislav Tretiak in the Red Army days to Khabibulin and Evgeni Nabokov last generation and guys now like Vasilevskiy, Varlamov and Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky, Russia’s hockey history is full of strong goaltending. After a several-year gap caused by the downfall of the Soviet Union, the nation is again producing some of the best in the world with young prospects Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Sorokin, Ilya Samsonov and 2020 draft-eligible Yaroslav Askarov making up the next wave of stars.

”It’s crazy now we have all those goalies because before that was our problem, but now we have so many great goalies,” Washington Capitals winger Ilya Kovalchuk said. ”It says that hockey system is growing in Russia. The goaltenders who’s retired, they help the system to grow those young kids as good players. It’s great to see that many guys come to the NHL like Vasilevskiy, Varlamov and all those guys, Bobrovsky. They’re all dominating. It’s great.”

Nabokov, who lead goalies born in the Soviet Union or Russia with 353 regular-season and 42 playoff wins, is helping that process as goalie coach of the San Jose Sharks. While he deals with professionals, he notices Russian and Finnish goaltending coaches back home teaching the position to very young players.

”It’s got a little bit more organized,” Nabokov said. ”Now each team have a goalie coach and tons of camps throughout summer where you can go and be well-detailed and they prepare kids technique-wise from early ages.”

The three Russian goalies who made it the furthest in the playoffs have very different techniques. Vasilevskiy is the 6-foot-3 reigning Vezina Trophy winner with the perfect blend of fundamentals and athleticism, Varlamov is the poised veteran who can make difficult saves look easy and Khudobin is the undersized throwback goalie who teammate John Klingberg joked is ”swimming all over the crease” and somehow stopping the puck.

As Khudobin said after a game a couple of years ago, ”I like to save the pucks.” Khabibulin called Khudobin a modern version of three-time Cup winner Martin Brodeur because he plays standing up unlike almost everyone else who relies on the butterfly position to make stops.

”I was looking at some highlights of him, and it’s somebody took a goalie from 1990 and put him in a time machine and got him into 2020,” Khabibulin said. ”But nevertheless he does the job.”

Maybe without Khabibulin’s invitation to take part in an online goalie school chat, Khudobin wouldn’t be one of the top performers in his first NHL playoff action at age 34.

”He was really losing interest, I guess, because of the pandemic and we started YouTube channel and started talking on Zoom with hockey players and just talk about hockey,” Khabibulin said. ”He was one of the guests. We had a great talk. We usually do it for about an hour, hour 15 and with him it was almost two hours.”

Since getting the starting job when Ben Bishop was injured, Khudobin has gone 12-6 with a 2.54 goals-against average and .921 save percentage and backstopped the Stars into the Stanley Cup Final. Two years after signing Khudobin to a two-year contract, general manager Jim Nill joked he wished it was five now.

The Islanders signed Varlamov last summer to a four-year deal to replace Robin Lehner, who was the only non-Russian goalie in the final four wit Vegas. Varlamov had never gone this deep in the playoffs before and is a major reason New York reached the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1993.

”Semyon, he was a No. 1 goalie, then he was a little bit off, then he was No. 1 again, kind of like nobody really paid attention to him,” Khabibulin said. ”And now he’s there.”

That’s Russian goaltending in a nutshell, and postseason is evidence of that. Vasilevskiy, Varlamov, Khudobin, Bobrovsky and Shesterkin have combined for 37 wins with a 2.28 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.

Nabokov credits this success and Russia’s goalie renaissance to a mix of more coaching and pure talent that’s possible now in the decades since the fall of communism there.

”The country went through certain things and people just didn’t pay attention to hockey that much: You can’t run hockey schools, you don’t have enough coaches, you can’t hire enough coaches,” he said. ”Russian goaltenders always been good, but it’s been a window where it’s kind of dropped off a little bit and now it’s back because we always had good hockey minds.”

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

2020 nhl stanley cup final schedule
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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

NHL Bubble Wrap: Lightning get through to Stanley Cup Final

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  • The Tampa Bay Lightning are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in franchise history.
  • Anthony Cirelli helped them making history by winning another series with an overtime winner.
  • Brayden Point returned for Game 6 after missing Game 5 on Tuesday.

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, New York Islanders 1 (OT) (Lightning win series 4-2)

It was starting to look like it was not going to happen for them, but the Tampa Bay Lightning finally broke through in overtime on an Anthony Cirelli goal to win Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final and punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. For the Lightning it will be their third trip to the final and the first since 2014-15 when they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. They previously won the Stanley Cup Final during the 2003-04 season. For the second game in a row the Lightning failed to convert on an extended power play that carried over into overtime. This time, though, they were on the right end of a 2-1 decision. Victor Hedman scored the other goal for Tampa Bay, continuing what has been a magnificent postseason. The Lightning also had Brayden Point back in the lineup after he missed Game 5 due to injury. The Islanders played Thursday’s game without one of their top defenseman, Adam Pelech, who will need surgery according to coach Barry Trotz.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning. When you score the goal that sends your team to the Stanley Cup Final, you get top star honors for the night. Cirelli is one of the Lightning’s most underrated players, but remains a key part of their lineup. He is already one of the league’s best defensive forwards and is developing into a strong offensive player. He is the perfect complement to the superstar talent at the top of the roster.

2. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. Yeah, his team lost. But he is the only reason his team made it to overtime and the only reason it had a chance. He stopped 46 out of 48 shots on the night and did everything he could to single handedly keep the series going. The only other thing he could have done was actually score a goal himself.

3. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning. He only had to face 27 shots, but he made an absolutely massive save in overtime to stop Brock Nelson on a breakaway that could have sent the series to a decisive seventh game.

Highlights of the Night

Anthony Cirelli scores the game-winning goal.

Hedman’s goal to tie the game for the Lightning in the first period.

Devon Toews scored the only goal for the Islanders.

Factoids

  • Tampa Bay’s win on Thursday is already its sixth overtime win of the postseason. [NHL PR]
  • This is the sixth time in NHL history that both Stanley Cup Final teams advanced to that round with overtime wins. [NHL PR]
  • No team has played more overtime hockey in a single postseason than this year’s Lightning team. [NHL PR]

Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

Cirelli’s overtime goal sends Lightning to Stanley Cup Final

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Thanks to Anthony Cirelli‘s goal at the 13:18 mark of overtime, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on their way back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

It is there that they will play the Stars. Game 1 of the series takes place on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) in Edmonton.

Cirelli’s goal ended a slugfest of a game that saw the Lightning pepper New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov with 48 shots and completely dominate territorially.

His goal had to be a massive relief for Lightning fans, not only because it sent their team to the Cup Final, but because this game was starting to take on an eerily similar feel.

One of the biggest issues the Lightning have had in the playoffs in recent years has been finishing series because of a slumping offense that could not convert on its chances. It happened to them in the 2015 Cup Final, and it happened to them in the 2016 and 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

After scoring one goal in Game 5 and only one goal through 70 minutes of hockey on Thursday it looked like it might be happening again.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It was also the second game in a row that the Lightning were given a four-minute power play at the end of regulation — this time due to an Andy Greene high-sticking call — that would carry over into overtime with a chance to clinch the series.

For the second game in a row they failed to capitalize on that opportunity.

Not only did they fail to score on that power play on Thursday, but Brock Nelson nearly ended the game for the Islanders on a breakaway only to have Andrei Vasilevskiy make his biggest save of the night.

Later in the period the Lightning were guilty of a too many men on the ice penalty that gave the Islanders a power play, but Tampa successfully killed the penalty by not allowing a single shot on goal. That successful kill set the stage for Cirelli’s overtime goal.

Cirelli had briefly exited the game in the second period after a collision at the blue line with Islanders captain Anders Lee.

Every series win for the Lightning this postseason has ended with an overtime goal.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.