TGIF: Five NHL games to watch this weekend

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Saturday: Vancouver at NY Rangers (2 p.m. ET)

John Tortorella returns to MSG to face former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, now behind the Rangers’ bench. It’s kind of unfortunate these teams already met during the preseason in Vancouver — why waste such a good storyline on an exhibition game? — but it will still be interesting to see what kind of reception Torts gets from the Garden faithful. We know how certain members of the New York media felt about Torts…

…and vice-versa. But it’s hard to pinpoint how Rangers fans felt about the fiery coach who, yes, was probably his own worst enemy at times, but also got his troops to play hard while buying into a team-first, self-sacrificing philosophy.

Saturday: Toronto at Montreal (7 p.m. ET)

We know, we know, people are always beating up on the Eastern Conference with “did you know?” stuff that shows how bad it is compared to the West. So in light of that…here’s some more stuff! The Habs and Leafs woke up Friday in fifth- and sixth-place in the East, five points clear of a playoff spot. Both of them have 30 points, a total that would put them 10th in the West, four points back of a playoff spot. Crazy, right? OK, enough bullying the poor East. Let’s move on to the most important factor for Montreal and Toronto this season. That would be goaltending. Carey Price, and to a lesser extent Peter Budaj, have helped the Canadiens to an NHL-best team save percentage of .935. Meanwhile, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have combined for the fourth-highest save percentage in the league, at .929.

Saturday: Chicago at Phoenix (8 p.m. ET)

Nobody expected the Coyotes’ attendance woes to turn on a dime as soon as they got new owners. And wouldn’t you know it? They haven’t. After 12 games at Jobing.com Arena, Phoenix ranks last in the NHL, averaging 12,493 fans. And that’s despite the ‘Yotes going 9-1-2 in those 12 games while playing some fairly entertaining, high-scoring hockey. That said, the hockey team isn’t the only pro team having trouble drawing crowds in the desert. The 8-7 Phoenix Suns rank 27th in NBA attendance (14,512) and drew just 12,731 to Wednesday’s 120-106 win over Portland. The basketball team doesn’t have the “Glendale is in the middle of nowhere” excuse, either. US Airways Center is in downtown Phoenix.

Saturday: Anaheim at San Jose (10:30 p.m. ET)

With just two wins in their last eight games, the Ducks have fallen from first in the West to fourth. Via Extra Skater, here’s how their possession statistics have been trending:

source:

That big spike? That was from smoking the Rangers, 6-0, on Oct. 10, and putting 56 shots on the Sens in a 4-1 victory on Oct. 13. Overall, Anaheim remains one of the best possession teams in the NHL. But they weren’t last season, a fact that led at least one handsome blogger to predict they were in for “a long fall” in 2013-14. (Yes, the same handsome blogger who thought the Oilers would make the playoffs. What, you’re perfect?)

Sunday: Detroit at Ottawa (5:30 p.m. ET)

Daniel Alfredsson’s return to the Canadian Tire Centre, formerly Scotiabank Place, the name it was called after it was called the Corel Centre, which started out at as The Palladium. According to Sens owner Eugene Melnyk, there will be a “nice” video tribute for Ottawa’s former captain who shockingly signed with Detroit in July. Knowing Melnyk, and knowing how upset he was at what transpired this summer, that “nice” tribute may actually be a compilation of every single turnover Alfredsson committed during his 17 seasons with the Sens.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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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.