East Update: Columbus crushes teams vying for miracle finish

16 Comments

There wasn’t a lot of noteworthy action in the Eastern Conference tonight, but the Columbus Blue Jackets victory over the New York Islanders had a significant ripple effect.

The Blue Jackets now have a 87.2% chance of making the playoffs, per Sports Club Stats. Consequently, the game was crippling to several teams still holding onto hope that they can make the playoffs:

  • That win, plus Toronto’s 4-2 loss to Winnipeg on Saturday means that even if Toronto wins its final three games, they will still miss the playoffs as long as Philadelphia goes at least 0-3-1, Detroit 1-3-0, and Columbus 1-2-1. Keep in mind that in all three scenarios, the Maple Leafs would lose the tiebreaker (wins minus shootout victories).
  • Things are nearly as bleak for the Washington Capitals, who have just a 36.2% chance of making the playoffs even if they win all of their remaining four contests.
  • With that in mind, the only team that has a real chance to come from behind and earn a playoff spot is New Jersey. Even then, the Devils will have a very tough time overcoming their three-point deficit against Columbus in four games.
  • Columbus’ win also put some pressure on the Philadelphia Flyers in the battle for the third seed in the Metropolitan Division, but Philadelphia responded with a win over Buffalo. Columbus might also overtake Detroit for the top Wild Card spot.

Here’s the updated Eastern Conference standings:

source:

Predators may have NHL’s best goalie combo on, off ice

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Pekka Rinne is off to an even better start than last season when he finally won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie, and backup Juuse Saros ranks among the league’s top 10 for victories.

With both goalies now signed to contract extensions, the Nashville Predators may have the best goalie situation both on and off the ice.

”There’s tandems that are much better than others, Nashville has one of them,” said Martin Biron, a former NHL goalie and now Buffalo broadcaster. ”And I think if you’re Peter Laviolette, if you’re the goalie coach and the staff, your job and your challenge is to keep them at the highest of levels for the whole season.”

So far, the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners are doing just that.

The Predators went into Tuesday night’s game in San Jose atop the league standings while also first in the NHL both in goals allowed (37) and 2.12 goals-against per game with Rinne and Saros (7-2-0) splitting the first 18 games. Rinne has been ”ImPekkable” with a 6-1-1 record, leading all goalies with at least eight starts with a 1.47 goals-against average and .951 save percentage.

”Every day he is and continues to be the backbone of this organization and team and has probably had the biggest impact on this organization,” Laviolette said.

Rinne is 3-0-1 with a .740 goals-against average and .976 save percentage and a shutout, stopping 121 of 124 shots faced since returning from injured reserve on Oct. 31. The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension taking him through 2020-21 on Nov. 3, and the goalie celebrated both the contract and his birthday with his second shutout of the season.

Biron said Tuesday that he doesn’t see a big competition for the starting job in Nashville.

”It’s Pekka’s job, and Nashville giving him that two-year deal I think is basically saying that ‘We want Pekka, and it’s going to be like that,”’ Biron said.

Rinne has been a Vezina finalist four of the past eight years, making the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed on an earlier birthday in 2011 worth every penny. That deal ties him for the fourth-priciest contract among goalies with Marc-Andre Fleury (33) of Vegas and Boston’s Tuukka Rask (31). Fleury is under contract through 2021-22, and Rask hits free agency after the 2020-21 season.

The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension worth $10 million on Nov. 3. General manager David Poile also signed Saros, 23, to a three-year extension in July worth $4.5 million. That means Nashville is projected to drop from seventh with $8.5 million of its salary cap invested in goaltenders to ninth next season with a $6.5 million average annual value, according to Sportrac.com.

Rinne could’ve pushed for more money. Montreal’s Carey Price, 31, is getting $10.5 million a year, while Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is being paid $8.5 million a year through 2020-21.

Biron calls Rinne one of the hardest-working goalies he’s ever seen who’s in unbelievable shape. He also sees Rinne simplifying his game as he got older, like Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Eddie Belfour. Rinne still can scramble and react, which Biron thinks will keep Rinne playing at a high level for possibly four more years like Lundqvist.

”Pekka can play at least through this next contract, and then after that we’ll see,” Biron said.

It’s up to Nashville to make that extra cap space pay off after losing the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games and then in seven games in the second round last May. Poile persuaded defenseman Ryan Ellis to take a bit less money with an eight-year deal for $50 million in August, and his next task will be trying to get captain Roman Josi to agree to an extension next summer before the final year on the defenseman’s current deal.

”Hopefully this helps in a way that makes this team stay together moving forward,” Rinne said. ”I think we have an opportunity to keep this same team. And I think that’s David’s goal and obviously I like the sound of it. I love this group, and I really think we have a chance this year and years to come.”

EARLY RETURNS

Tom Wilson of the Capitals returned to the lineup Tuesday night at Minnesota after arbitrator Shyam Das reduced the forward’s suspension by six games to 14 for his illegal check to the head of St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist at the end of the preseason.

He made an immediate impact, scoring a first-period goal in a 5-2 victory.

Nashville forward Austin Watson is eligible to return to the ice Thursday night when the Predators wrap up a road trip in Arizona after Das cut his suspension from 27 games to 18 after he pleaded no contest in July to a domestic assault charge.

Das is the same neutral arbitrator fired by Major League Baseball in 2012 after he overturned Ryan Braun’s drug suspension. The NHL fired arbitrator James Oldham in 2016 after his decision to reduce Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension to 10 for striking and injuring an official, and either the NHL or NHLPA can fire the neutral arbitrator after each season.

NWHL ALL-STAR GAME

The Predators, who hosted the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, will be hosting the 2019 NWHL All-Star Weekend capped by an NHL-NWHL doubleheader on Feb. 10. This is the third straight year the NWHL has held its All-Star Weekend in an NHL market, starting with Pittsburgh in 2017 and Minnesota in 2018.

Nashville will host St. Louis with a morning faceoff, and fans will be invited to stick around for the NWHL All-Star Game starting soon after the NHL matinee. The All-Star game will feature a pair of 25-minute halves with Shannon Szabados, goalie for the Buffalo Beauts and a three-time Olympian with Canada, captain of one team and Minnesota defender Lee Stecklein, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in February, captain of the other team.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Patrick Marleau and the Toronto Maple Leafs visit his old team in San Jose on Thursday night with Erik Karlsson still settling in with the Sharks.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 16; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 20; Points: Mikko Rantanen, (Colorado), and Connor McDavid, (Edmonton), 26; Wins: Frederik Andersen (Toronto), 10; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.47; Save percentage: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), .951.

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

Anders Lee and the friend he’ll never forget

Getty Images
1 Comment

Arcade games, pizza and his good friend Fenov. It’s a day that Anders Lee will never forget.

As the New York Islanders captain and his wife Grace spent an afternoon with Fenov Pierre-Louis, you wouldn’t have been able to tell what the teenager was going through.

At age nine, Fenov was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that forms in the nerve tissue of the adrenal glands. He experienced chemotherapy, immunotherapy, numerous surgeries, radiation treatments and stem cell transplants that led to some victories, but also relapses. He fought for nearly half of his life.

“You learn from someone like that who’s going through some really tough times, a lot of treatment, a lot of pain and not necessarily a good outlook,” Lee told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “But to have a smile on his face like he did and how optimistic he was and how positive he was, it kind of just puts life into perspective a little bit. To go through a tough time in the rink, sometimes it’s feels like it’s everything around you, but it’s really not, it’s a small part of our lives. That part of gaining a little bit of perspective and enjoying this and making the most of it really is special. He was a perfect example of that.”

Lee first learned of Fenov after seeing a speech the teenager gave following a 2016 event. At that time, the Islanders forward was researching ways to make an impact in the community. The KanJam event and helping pediatric cancer patients matched what he was looking for. He was already familiar with the game, having played it regularly while at Notre Dame.

The first Anders Lee Kancer Jam was held in 2017 and raised over $90,000. Last season’s event broke the $100,000 mark. All proceeds benefit Cohen Children’s Medical Center, a Long Island hospital that Islanders players have visited annually.

Sadly, Fenov passed away in July at the age of 17, two months after he joined Lee in Denmark as the Islanders forward represented the U.S. at the IIHF World Championship and later fulfilled a lifelong dream of touring Italy. His absence at this year’s event, which will take place after Sunday’s afternoon game versus the Dallas Stars, will give it a different feel.

“It changes. You have this wonderful friendship with someone and it’s for such a short period of time and it was so special,” Lee said. “But now that we’ve lost Fenov, this does mean a lot even more to me and to Grace, to everyone involved. It’s definitely going to be tough the first time without him. He was the one who I handed the mic to first because he always had something special to say. This year I’m obviously not going to be able to hand it to him. I’ll have to fill his shoes a little bit.”

The idea for Jam Kancer in the Kan was hatched in 2014 by Jamey Crimmins, who raised money for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center by running with “Fred’s Team” during that year’s New York City Marathon. Crimmins’ father-in-law and close friend passed away from cancer and after playing Kan Jam that summer, he decided to use the popular outdoor frisbee game as another way to fundraise. The first event in 2014 raised $14,296 with 24 teams participating.

Current NHLers Kevin Shattenkirk of the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian held events last season. Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller of the Tampa Bay Lightning will host their own “Kan Jam” in February.

Lee’s Islanders teammates will all be on hand Sunday. The tournament will feature players paired up against teams of two who have raised at least $2,000. There will also be some pediatric cancer patients in attendance, allowing them a few hours away from hospitals and treatment for smiles and some fun.

To Lee, Fenov was “the toughest guy” he knew. The relationship left a lasting impact on the Islanders captain. Never one to allow a slump or tough times to wear on him, being able to be around the teenager and see him inspire others while going through a battle of his own was something that will not be forgotten.

“Any one who had a chance to meet him understood how wise beyond his years he really was and the presence that he had when you were around him and with him,” said Lee. “Fenov was one of the most caring people I’ve ever met. You never would have known what he was going through, that’s how strong he was. He didn’t ever let it get to him. He always had a smile on his face. [He was] one of those people that comes in your life and just makes an immediate impact on you.”

————

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.

Gavin McHale’s unforgettable night as Capitals’ backup goalie

AP Images
1 Comment

The calls started to pour in around 5 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

Gavin McHale, a former Western Hockey League goaltender whose NHL dream ended a decade ago, was finishing up practice with the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team. The 31-year-old goaltending coach did what most do these days when work is over: he checked his phone.

What was different than other days was a screen littered with roughly 10 missed calls, most of them from Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger, and another from a random Pennsylvania number.

Both were calling about the same thing.

A few hours earlier, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby tweaked something in his upper-body during an informal skate at Bell MTS Place. Holtby was slated to start Wednesday night’s game against the Jets, but whatever happened during that brief morning jaunt on the ice turned an expected start into a game-time decision.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirdan spoke with the media at 4:45 p.m. and not a peep was shared about Holtby. But the situation seemed in flux enough that McHale needed to be summoned.

By 5:15 p.m. CT, McHale had caught wind of the situation and was now in his car weaving through traffic to get to from the south end of the city to the Jets’ downtown arena. With the revelation that Holtby would sit due to injury, McHale was set to be signed to an amateur tryout contract and serve as Pheonix Copley’s backup.

“I don’t think I can say those words but (I’m) trying to tell everyone I know that’s close to me and get to the rink as fast as possible,” McHale said of the thoughts racing through his head.

McHale is one of several emergency puckstoppers in Winnipeg. When it’s his turn to be on-call he’ll get to the game with a guest — on Wednesday it was his mom, Val — and eat the press box meal before nestling into his seat to watch among media members and team staffers high above the ice. When the game ends, he exits along with 15,000 others.

Wednesday wasn’t like all the rest.

McHale wasn’t afforded his complimentary pre-game grub. He didn’t sit down next to his mother, either. She was joined by her husband, Ian, in the press box while their son was a few floors below in the visitors’ dressing room suiting up for the game.

“I think every single person in this room introduced themselves to me so it just made me feel a lot more calm and they just kind of let me do my thing,” McHale said. “They had to get ready for a game so it just made me feel really welcomed.”

By 6:40 p.m. CT, McHale, wearing No. 41 in Capitals away threads, stepped onto the ice for his first NHL warmup.

The only shots McHale would see on Wednesday were the ones whizzing by him during warmup, the first courtesy of Alex Ovechkin.

“I was hoping no one saw that,” McHale said afterward.

They did.

It’s hard to miss the 6-foot-7 netminder. But you can forgive him for giving up a few softies as he spelled Copley pre-game.

“Ah, pretty star-struck,” McHale said. “And then star-struck for the next three or four after that until I kind of settled in and the guys said a couple of things to me.”

Crazy enough, it’s not the first time McHale has had to make haste in an emergency role. Heck, it’s not even the first time this year.

On Feb. 16, McHale had to rush down from the press box during the second intermission of Winnipeg’s game against Colorado. Avalanche starter Jonathan Bernier picked up and injury, meaning backup Semyon Varlamov was summoned onto the ice and McHale had to quickly don his goalie garb for the final 20 minutes.

View this post on Instagram

[ABOUT LAST NIGHT] … “We’ll come get you if we need you.” – @nhljets assistant GM Craig Heisinger on October 4th, 2017, my first game as the Emergency backup. … I looked over at @kbabb9 and we chuckled, knowing that shit would have to go sideways for that to happen. … Since then, every time I’ve been working a game and a goalie gets knocked or nudged or twists the wrong way, my heart stops. … “Will this be the moment I throw an NHL jersey over my head for real?” … Last night was an odd game, the Jets pulling away from the visiting @coloradoavalanche. I even mentioned something to my guest, @c_hodgyyy in the second period when Avs goalie Jonathan Bernier got hit awkwardly. … As the teams skated out for the third period, I noticed the Avalanche had switched their goalie. Totally normal, especially when you’re down 4-0 after two periods. … But Bernier didn’t come out of the tunnel to take his place as backup… GULP. … I turned to watch Jets PR guy Scott Brown walking directly towards me with a smile on his face. … “You’re needed in the Avalanche dressing room. Let’s go.” … I turned to Colin and all I could mustre was “holy fuck” as I stood up and bee-lined it out of the press box. … I put my gear on as fast as I ever have, knowing that I was now one play away from stepping onto the ice in an NHL game. … My heart raced as I slung my equipment onto my body. Then, I realized my childhood dream of slipping a real life @NHL jersey over my head. … It was number 61 and the name bar had been taped over, but I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even get to keep it, but I can now say that I have dressed for an NHL team, albeit for half a period and I wasn’t even allowed to leave the dressing room. … No contract to sign. No fame (except in my small circle of family and friends) and not even a memento from the team. … But the opportunity to be one play away from PLAYING IN THE NHL? I’ll take any amount of proverbial shit in my pants for that. … #grateful #nhl #avalanche #jets #emergencygoalie #theshow #mchalestrength #tarpsoptional

A post shared by Gavin McHale (@gavinmchale1) on

A little different, eh?

“It was kind of late in the game so it was a little bit of a different experience than getting the whole pregame experience and all that,” McHale said.

Just after 7 p.m. CT, McHale stood for the anthems at the entrance of the visitors’ tunnel across from Washington’s bench. Sporting a Capitals ball cap, he peered on for the next three periods.

At one point, Copley took a puck off the mask, dislodging it.

“I was thinking, ‘Get that thing on as fast as you can,'” McHale said.

Copley did, and he would go on to stop 21 shots in a 3-1 loss to the Jets.

McHale’s name will forever be on an NHL scoresheet. Playing time or not, he had made it to The Show.

“It’s definitely not something I thought would happen in the last 10 years since the career took a downturn,” McHale said. “But it was a pretty exciting experience.”

On Thursday, McHale returned to his coaching gig with a story to tell. He’ll now have some bragging rights, too, for his beer league buddies who play weekly at Bell MTS Iceplex.

“I think the biggest thing is that every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good,” he said. “Just to be a person is a really important piece of what hockey players are. This was a pretty successful team last year, so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

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

Watson reinstated to Predators’ roster after suspension

AP Images
Leave a comment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Forward Austin Watson has been reinstated to the Predators’ roster after serving an 18-game suspension for domestic abuse, and he issued a statement apologizing to everyone for the June incident that cost him the start of the season.

Watson issued the statement Wednesday through the NHL Players’ Association thanking his family, friends and the Nashville Predators for their continued support.

”It is a privilege to play in the National Hockey League, and I am grateful to be able to once again compete with my teammates,” Watson said. ”I apologize to Jennifer, my family, Jennifer’s family, my teammates, the Nashville community, and the Nashville Predators for the negative attention that has come from the events on June 16th.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Watson for 27 games on Sept. 12 for unacceptable off-ice conduct after an investigation and a hearing with Watson after he pleaded no contest in July to a charge of domestic assault stemming from an incident in June. Arbitrator Shyam Das reduced the suspension to 18 games, allowing Watson to return to the ice Thursday night in Arizona.

The NHL does not have a written domestic abuse policy and has chosen to judge each incident separately. Slava Voynov is currently still suspended indefinitely for a 2014 incident.

Watson concluded his statement asking for privacy on this issue.

”Out of respect for my family’s health, well-being, and privacy, I will have no further comment on this matter moving forward,” Watson said.

The Predators, who are wrapping up a five-game road trip in Arizona, also issued a statement saying Watson has served his suspension and the organization continues to support Watson, his girlfriend and their baby as they work together as a family. The team statement also noted that the Predators also will have no further comment ”on this matter.”

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