Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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Consider this a motivational tool for all 16 of the NHL’s playoff teams. Prove us wrong, teams. Prove…us…wrong.

New York Islanders. We’ve got a small, but loyal band of Isles fans who comment regularly on PHT. All year they’ve been talking a big game, saying how nobody should be surprised that this team is in playoff contention. Newsflash: the New York Islanders have missed the playoffs every year since 2007. They haven’t been past the first round since 1993. They’re run on a shoe-string because they play in a dump. They trade for guys who aren’t even playing to get the cap hit. They pick up every third scrub who’s put on waivers. Yes, how outrageous for anyone to doubt the mighty Islanders. John Tavares is pretty good, so they might win a game against the Penguins.

Minnesota Wild. Came oh-so-close to a choke for the ages, but pulled it out of the fire by barely beating a dysfunctional Colorado team that’s probably in the buffet line at the Luxor as you read this. Congratulations! The Wild were terrible down the stretch. They went 5-8-2 in April, with four of their victories coming over non-playoff teams. It’s actually sort of impressive that the Wild can ring up such a huge payroll and you still look at their defense and shake your head. Poor Ryan Suter was forced to play 32:54 against the Avs. These guys have no shot against the Blackhawks. None.

Toronto Maple Leafs. The worst team to make the playoffs. And in a related story, quite possibly the luckiest. The Leafs won two games this season with just 13 shots. On average, they were outshot by six shots per game, by far the worst differential of any of the other 15 playoff teams. If it weren’t for James Reimer, they’d be saved the embarrassment of getting blown away by the Bruins. The other day, Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said his team is at its best when it gets over 50 hits in a game. Because actually possessing the puck isn’t important, apparently.

Ottawa Senators. Credit where credit’s due. The Sens did extremely well to make the playoffs given the injuries they had to contend with. And now that Erik Karlsson is back…well, actually, they’re still screwed. You cannot win the Stanley Cup with an offense that ranks 27th out of 30 teams. And remember, the Sens couldn’t score last year either, so you can’t just chalk up this year to injuries. One more thing: since Craig Anderson returned, he’s been nowhere near as good as he was early this season. Mostly because no goalie alive could sustain that level of play.

Detroit Red Wings. It’s kind of cruel the way Mike Babcock has Wings fans feeling good about the defense again, because it’s only going to lead to disappointment. Remember the way Flyers fans convinced themselves everything would be OK without Chris Pronger? “We’ve got Nicklas Grossmann now!” Yeah, how’d that work out? You do not lose Nicklas Lidstrom, bring in a bunch of youngsters and remain a Stanley Cup contender. There’s nothing wrong with what the Wings are doing. It’s their only option. They just have no shot at winning right now, that’s all.

New York Rangers. Did any team do less with more in the regular season? On paper, the Rangers have a pretty good team. On the ice, they have a pretty average team. Or maybe it’s just a team that’s absolutely terrified to make any mistakes because of its coach. To be fair, New York has been decent down the stretch, but everyone knows what’s coming: John Tortorella will play his best players to the point of exhaustion because he doesn’t trust his lesser guys. And then, when the Rangers are eliminated, he’ll say fatigue was never a factor, as Dan Girardi falls apart like the Bluesmobile.

The blues brothers car collapse - Created at yt2gif.com

San Jose Sharks. This will be their ninth straight postseason appearance. Not once have they made it past the conference finals. Why should it be any different in 2013? Tear down this team, Mr. Gorbachev.

Washington Capitals. Did you hear? The old Caps are back! Running and gunning, racking up pretty goals on the power play, and rolling through the regular season. That Alex Ovechkin sure loves to score. What a treat to watch. Um, everyone remembers the old Caps always choked in the playoffs, right? Not to mention, the old/new Caps got 15 of their 27 wins against Southeast Division opponents, none of which made the playoffs. Can’t wait for the “we’ve just got to learn to play the right way” comments in a couple of weeks.

Vancouver Canucks. It was so cute when they beat the Blackhawks last week and everyone in the city thought it meant something. Sorry, but this team is still broken from 2011. Whatever mojo it ever had, the Boston Bruins stole. Fast forward two years and the Canucks finished the regular season with the 19th-ranked offense. Recently, they even had the audacity to suggest they don’t try to score as much anymore. Nope, no more “blowing the zone” for these defensively responsible guys. Do people buy these excuses? God help them if Roberto “Hey coach, I’m kinda getting torched out here” Luongo has to start. At this point, Cory Schneider – he of the “body” injury and four career playoff starts – is their only hope.

St. Louis Blues. That some fans were scared of their team facing the Blues is absolutely hilarious. Fun fact: St. Louis scored 22 goals in its last 12 games of the season. Six of them came against the Avs, four on the Flames, and three on the Rockford IceHogs. What a terrifying team, indeed. The Blues are also going into the playoffs with Brian Elliott as their starting goalie. Which, on second thought, may explain why they play so conservatively. Elliott’s career save percentage in the playoffs is .887.

Boston Bruins. Take it away Shawn Thornton: “I’m a little sick of talking about two years ago. That was a long time ago. It’s a new team. It’s a new chapter. Just because we accomplished something two years ago doesn’t mean it’s going to be automatic.” No, it doesn’t. Especially considering the B’s enter the playoffs with just two wins in their last eight games. They look either tired or indifferent; probably, it’s both. And oh yeah, they don’t have Tim Thomas anymore. It’s almost like some people have forgotten how good he was in 2011. Yeah, yeah, his politics aren’t for everyone, but without Thomas, Boston doesn’t even get out of the first round that year. (Also, the power play still stinks.)

Montreal Canadiens. In case you missed it, Carey Price had kind of a bad April. On one occasion, he was pulled after surrendering three goals on four shots against Toronto. On another, he let in six goals against the Flyers. There were other bad games, too. When the regular season came mercifully to an end, Price had registered an .876 save percentage for the month and Habs fans were in a complete and totally justified panic. “Quite honestly, I like the way Carey Price has been playing this week,” Habs coach Michel Therrien said Saturday, just to lighten the mood and give everyone a good chuckle. Price’s play wouldn’t be such a concern if goaltending was the Canadiens’ only issue. Except it’s not. The forwards are still too small, the team is shorthanded all the time, and defenseman Andrei Markov looks 54, not 34.

Anaheim Ducks. The fact this team started the season 22-3-4 is testament to the role that luck plays in hockey. The fact it finished 8-9-2 in its last 19 is proof that luck eventually runs out. Bottom line: the Ducks are an average team. Early on, they scored a lot of goals and won a lot of games, but it wasn’t because they were dominating their opposition – the pucks were just going in. Seven goals on 26 shots against Vancouver. Seven goals on 25 shots against Los Angeles. Five goals on 23 shots against St. Louis. It wasn’t sustainable. And neither are the Ducks in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings. Speaking of luck, let’s talk about quite possibly the luckiest Stanley Cup champion ever. Because this isn’t talked about enough. Here’s what the Kings had to do last year: Finish eighth in the Western Conference. Beat a basket-case Canucks team without Daniel Sedin. Beat an inexperienced Blues side with no Jaroslav Halak and a banged-up Alex Pietrangelo. Beat Phoenix…which was Phoenix. And beat New Jersey…which was New Jersey. In case you missed it, the Coyotes and Devils didn’t even make the playoffs this year. No, it wasn’t the Kings’ fault they got such an easy draw. But they probably shouldn’t expect the sea to part like that again. And even if it does, Jonathan Quick has been downright mediocre.

source: Getty Images

Pittsburgh Penguins. The forwards are good; we’ll give them that. The defense and goaltending? Still highly suspect. As well as the Pens have played defensively at times this season (and we stress the phrase “at times”), you simply cannot ignore last year’s loss to the Flyers when the Pens surrendered 30 goals in six games. That’s not just bad – that’s horrendous. Kris Letang leads Pittsburgh on the back end, and his stat line (5 G, 33 A) is impressive. But what percentage of his production is a product of the forwards he gets to pass the puck to? Would anyone put him in the elite shutdown category? Then there’s Marc-Andre Fleury and his .904 playoff save percentage. In fact, Fleury has had a sub-.900 save percentage in each of his last three postseasons, bottoming out last year at a shocking .834 versus the Flyers. Oh, and has anyone noticed the Penguins are always getting hurt.

Chicago Blackhawks. It’s not easy thinking up bulletin-board material for a team that went 36-7-5 and won the Presidents’ Trophy by five points in a shortened season. But there’s a reason the regular season’s best team usually doesn’t win the Stanley Cup, and the reason is this: there are 15 other teams trying to win it, too. Obviously, you need the right players. But you also need a few breaks along the way. Let’s put it another way: Suppose we were to give the Blackhawks a 90 percent chance to beat the Wild, an 80 percent chance to win the second round, a 70 percent chance to win the conference finals  and a 60 percent chance to win the finals. That’s actually pretty generous, given the specter of injuries and the fact Michal Handzus is their second-line center. Multiply those four percentages and the ‘Hawks have a 30 percent chance of winning the Cup, meaning there’s a 70 percent chance one of the 15 other teams somehow flukes their way to a title like the Kings did.

High-schooler ‘sticks it to cancer’ with surprise comeback

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NBC Sports is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL Sunday tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

It was standing room only in the rink, with those in attendance unaware of the surprise that was to be announced in a few moments. Derek Zacchino was lined up on the blue line in full uniform next to his Bethpage High School teammates prepared to take part in the ceremonial puck drop for a benefit game in his honor.

It had been a trying three months for the junior defenseman and his family. A surprise diagnosis after the first practice of the year changed the entire season. Now here he was inside the Town of Oyster Bay Ice Skating Center holding a secret that only few people there knew.

Hours before the benefit game Derek learned that partaking in the pre-game puck drop wouldn’t be his only on-ice duties that evening.

***

September 4 on Long Island was a hot one. Temperatures reached the 90s the day before many schools opened in the area. That Tuesday also marked the first day of practice for the Bethpage Eagles hockey team.

The 2018-19 season was to be one of transition for the Eagles. Despite losing the league’s top goaltender and scorer, and some of their top defensemen to graduation, they were hoping to build off last season’s run where they won their conference, reached the Nassau County final, and participated in the New York State tournament.

Derek left that first practice early feeling ill. He found himself experiencing double vision and ended up vomiting in the dressing room. Having experienced headaches over the summer, he chalked it up to being related to concussions he’d suffered in the past. One week and numerous tests later, he found himself on the way to Cohen Children’s Medical Center after doctors discovered a large mass.

“Sorry I couldn’t come to practice tonight, I had to go to the hospital. Turns out I have fluid on my brain,” was the text Derek wrote to Eagles head coach Jeff Schmier, who initially thought he was feeling dehydrated.

Doctors had found a tumor on Derek’s brain and were able to take most of it after emergency surgery the next day. After some tests, it was discovered the tumor was malignant and he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an “aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“[My wife and I] were just numb. I just thought life as I know it was ended,” said Derek’s dad, Don. “If something takes Derek away from me, I don’t see how I can ever be the same, let alone move on.”

But seeing Derek’s attitude after surgery and the diagnosis, especially as his concern focused on when he could play hockey again and not what he’s been through, helped Don and his wife Dawn deal with the situation.

“He never complained,” said Don. “He never showed sadness or [asked] ‘why me?’ That’s what carried us through. People ask me at work all the time, ‘How are you going through with this? You’re amazing.’ I’m not amazing. My son’s amazing. When I grow up, I want to be Derek. He was leading my wife and I in this journey of positivity. He never let us break down, because how could we? It doesn’t seem to be affecting him.”

Following the surgery, a schedule began that featured radiation treatments five times a week and a chemotherapy infusion every Monday. Derek still wanted to attend school, so treatments took place after classes ended for the day. His new challenge also didn’t keep him away from rink. He was still able to attend practices and games just to be around his teammates and help keep a sense of normalcy.

“It wasn’t too hard being away,” said Derek. “It was more tough not being able to play in the games.”

***

As Derek went through his cancer battle, the community rallied around the Zacchinos. Plans were made to turn Bethpage’s Dec. 19 game into a benefit for the hospital, which saw T-shirts featuring the slogan “Stick It To Cancer” sold in large quantities, as well as gift baskets and signed items donated by various NHL teams to be raffled off.

The night that was expected to raise only few hundred dollars ballooned into something bigger.

Once the crowd filed into packed rink, the atmosphere by those in attendance was likened to that of an NHL playoff game. Everyone was there to support Derek, but earlier in the day some surprise news changed the entire feel of the night.

As Derek sat down for his lunch period, Don called with the news that his doctors had cleared him to play that night. Now he had to go the rest of the day without revealing the secret.

When they arrived at the rink later that day, only Derek, his parents, Schmier, and the head coach of the opposing team, Oceanside High School, knew he was playing.

Derek arrived about 90 minutes before the game because he wanted to beat the crowd and say hello to everyone he needed to and then get ready. “I came in and I’ve never seen so many people in such a confined space,” he said. Schmier had arranged to have each team in the league have a representative in attendance, some of whom sent a number of players from their roster.

A former member of the Eagles’ team who now helps out assisted Derek in getting his equipment into the dressing room without anyone noticing. As Schmier did his usual pre-game pep talk, he emphasized to his players the importance of focusing on such a big night, especially as they were facing a 9-0-1 team. He finished by revealing the secret.

“One more thing,” Schmier said to his players. “I have some news that is going to rock your world. Like I say, defense wins it. We have someone that’s going to be joining us playing tonight and I need one of you players not to dress tonight. Talk about it amongst yourselves. Derek’s going to be playing tonight.”

From there the dressing room erupted in cheers, some players even broke down in tears at the news. It was a needed emotional boost for a team that was going through an up-and-down season.

Once the furor died down, Derek started getting ready, but kept getting interrupted by requests from local news stations for interviews. He didn’t really get to settle in until later on, and once he hit the ice he was running on adrenaline.

Still, while he took part in warmups in full uniform and all of his equipment on, no one in the crowd knew he would be playing. It was Dave Schneider, Bethpage superintendent of schools who made the announcement, which resulted in a roar from the crowd.

There was still a game to be played and the Eagles came out gave their best performance of the season, one that was capped by a strong defensive effort in the final moments.

As Bethpage held a 4-3 lead with under a minute to go and after some penalties, Oceanside found themselves with an empty net and a 5-on-3 advantage. 

“There’s no way I’m getting off this ice,” Derek told Schmier when asked if he wanted to stay on for the final shift.

A complete 60-minute effort wouldn’t be without some luck. As Oceanside pressed for the tying goal, their best chance clanked off the goal post with seconds remaining. The ensuing face off was tied up in the corner by Bethpage and time ran out with the Eagles immediately surrounding Derek in celebration.

“I have never been involved in a sporting event like that night. It was so emotional,” said Schmier, who still remains impressed at the level his team played at that night. “I’ve watched games since… I actually told them, I don’t ever want to hear that that team was better. I saw what you could do tonight, you have no more excuses because they were capable of that.”

Northwell Health

The game took place two days before Derek’s 17th birthday and the victory only added to a night that was a complete success. By the end, $21,016 (Derek wears No. 16) had been raised for pediatric cancer research at Cohen Children’s Medical Center.

“I don’t think anything really changed me,” said Derek of his cancer experience. “I learned that there’s a lot more good people out there than you think.”

Derek was unable to finish two other games the rest of the season, as the effects of his radiation treatments were too much for his body. His fight wasn’t over yet as there was a second surgery on Feb. 1. Another MRI in January showed doctors that part of the tumor that was left there originally did not go away and it had grown a little. The good news was that the surgeon was confident he could go in and get it, mainly because there was more room between the tumor and the brain than he originally expected.

Pro-active treatments are now being done to prevent the cancer from returning and eventually he’ll begin an oral chemotherapy treatment. The fatigue he experiences from the radiation treatments is expected to wear off by the end of the month and while they’re not focusing on it yet, he should be fully ready to return to the ice next season.

A week after the second surgery, Derek was a guest of New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk during his annual Kancer Jam fundraiser. The two connected thanks to a teacher at Bethpage High School and met after a game at Madison Square Garden in late December.

Shattenkirk wasn’t the only NHL player to reach out. Fellow Long Island native Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins sent a signed jersey, as did Alex Tuch, who got his Vegas Golden Knights teammates to autograph one for Derek.

***

Through this experience, nothing phased Derek. While his family were concerned about his health, he never complained about what he was going through. His only concern was when he’d be able to play hockey again.

“I don’t even think it’s still hit me,” said Derek, who was named after Boston Bruins great Derek Sanderson even though Don is a die-hard Rangers fan. “When I found out that my last surgery went well, as the doctor said, in remission as of right now. I never really freaked out. So I don’t think it’s even hit me that I was diagnosed with it yet, let alone healed.”

“He was never high and low,” said Don. “He’s Derek. This is Derek.”

That was never more evident as the four of us sat for an interview last week and Schmier casually broke the news to Derek that he would be the team’s captain next season.

“I guessed my senior season year would be our best season,” said Derek. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

The Eagles will only graduate four seniors in June, which means the 2019-20 season will feature an upperclassmen-heavy roster. That will be a team led by a motivated captain who has conquered the ultimate obstacle.

“I didn’t know until this happened, the magnitude of [nothing phasing Derek] and really how impressed I am,” said Don. “Looking back, this is Derek’s personality. The strength and the poise, this is a whole other thing.

“Like I say, when I grow up I want to be him.”

Pre-game studio coverage begins at noon ET on NBC with NHL Live, which will be on-site in Hockeytown at The Rink at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit, Mich. Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will anchor pre-game, intermission and post-game coverage throughout the day alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. In addition, Tappen will provide reports and interviews from the Team USA vs. Canada women’s hockey game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Sunday afternoon.

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule:
N.Y. Rangers at Pittsburgh – NBC – 12:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
St. Louis at Minnesota – NBC – 3:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
Philadelphia at Detroit – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live)

————

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.

The Buzzer: Binnington posts another shutout; Barkov scores wonder goal

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Three stars

1. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

The kid has been in this category a pile of times since Jan. 7 when he made his first start of the season. That night, he recorded his first NHL shutout and grabbed his first NHL win.

Fast forward a month and a bit and Binnington’s flashy start hasn’t turned out to be a fluke. He shutout the Minnesota Wild with a 30-save performance on Sunday, three days after he shutout the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

‘Winnington’ has four shutouts on the season now. That’s four since Jan. 7. He owns a 12-1-1 record. That’s also since Jan. 7. And he’s a big, big part of why the Blues have 10 straight wins, matching a franchise record.

There’s no hotter goalie in the NHL and subsequently, no hotter team.

2. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers 

Barkov belongs on the list for this goal, alone:

But Barkov also had a hat trick on the night, including the go-ahead goal (the one above) and the insurance marker in the third period.

He added an assist for the four-point night.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins needed someone to step up to keep ahold of their playoff spot and Evgeni Malkin’s two goals 2:31 apart in the third period gave the Penguins just what they needed in a 6-5 win.

Malkin missed five games because of injury and another because of suspension, but since he returned from his ailment, all he’s’ done is produce. He’s got four goals and two assists in three games since his return.

Pittsburgh is in a real fight for a playoff spot, so a hot Malkin, as opposed to a hot-headed Malkin, will be key down the stretch. They need his production in a big way.

Highlights of the night

The legend:

Ovechkin hits 40, again:

Odd but effective:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 6, Rangers 5
Blues 4, Wild 0
Devils 4, Sabres 1
Flyers 3, Red Wings 1
Panthers 6, Canadiens 3
Ducks 5, Capitals 2

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


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

 

Panthers’ Barkov scores candidate for goal of the year

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Well, this is beyond filthy.

Scoring a goal in the NHL is hard enough. Dropping it between your legs and roofing it while being hacked by a defenseman who’s in close proximity? Impossible, you’d think.

Aleksander Barkov: “Hold my drink…”

Barkov pulled off the impossible on Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens, making Victor Mete look silly and Carey Price, too. Two good players, both left embarrassed.

Make sure you’re sitting for this one:

As the color man said on the Fox Sports broadcast, “There are some things you just cannot analyze.”

Indeed. You can only marvel at this one.

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


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

Hart stands tall as Flyers win again

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Last night, the Philadelphia Flyers made a mess of it but still managed to beat the Detroit Red Wings 6-5 after blowing a four-goal third-period lead at home.

A day later, the Flyers made sure not to make the same mistake twice, defeating the Red Wings in the second half of a back-to-back home-and-home 2-1 on Hockey Day in America on NBCSN.

The Flyers were lucky to escape with those two points on Saturday but regrouped in overtime to take both points with them. On Sunday, the Flyers played a tighter game and found the game-winner from defenseman Ivan Provorov 2:11 into the third period to break a 1-1 tie.

The goal proved to be enough, with Carter Hart making 37 saves for his 11th win in his past 13 starts.

The Flyers have won 12 of their past 14 games (12-1-1) and now sit six points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins (who won earlier on NBC) for the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Oskar Lindblom scored two goals in the game, giving him 10 on the season. His first, as you’ll see below, was a tad lucky.

Lindblom followed that up with No. 10 into the empty net late in the third period.

The Red Wings, not in the playoff picture due to a 15-point gap between themselves and the Pens, entered the game with points in six of their past nine games but couldn’t find the late spark that ensured they grabbed one on Saturday.

Jonathan Bernier got the start in goal but left after the first period due to an upper-body injury. Jimmy Howard, who started the night before, came in and made 11 saves in relief, giving up the game-winner to Provorov.

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


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

Devils’ Gabriel sets bait, Sabres’ Bogosian takes it in warm-up fracas

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Kurtis Gabriel doesn’t play a pile of minutes, so it’s a little surprising that Zach Bogosian took such an interest in the 25-year-old forward prior to puck drop between the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres on Sunday.

It must be something he said.

Indeed, Gabriel got under the veteran defenseman’s skin well before the game officially started. A heated conversation at the center line during warmup seemed to spark an extended battle between the two as the usual pre-game skate progressed.

Bogosian took issue with something Gabriel chirped in their first exchange and swatted the latter in the back of the leg before departing, momentarily at least.

Bogosian hooked Gabriel on another pass-by later on, then proceeded to fire a puck his way before the intense death glare. Of course, Bogosian wasn’t finished. He got in a solid cross-check to Gabriel’s arm followed by a quick slash — Bogosian’s version of a 1-2, apparently.

Here’s the tape:

Gabriel didn’t budge. Instead, he mocked Bogosian before Drew Stafford skated between the two to diffuse the situation.

Nothing seemed to come of it during the game and the pair didn’t drop the gloves.

Bogosian finished with nearly 21 minutes of ice time while Gabriel had 7:03.

The Devils got the last laugh, winning 4-1.


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