PHT’s Season Preview: 30 questions, 180 answers

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We made a list of 30 questions ahead of the 2014-15 NHL season, then we tried to answer those questions. Enjoy:

1. Of all the teams that missed the playoffs last season, the most likely to make the playoffs this season is…

Jason Brough: Washington. I considered a few teams here, but I think Barry Trotz will be good for the Caps, and I liked the Matt Niskanen signing.

James O’Brien: The Isles. The Capitals and Devils are awfully tempting choices, but I love what Garth Snow did this offseason.

Ryan Dadoun: The New York Islanders. I think their top two forward lines look pretty good and Jaroslav Halak should be solid between the pipes.

Cam Tucker:  Vancouver. Outside of trading Ryan Kesler, the core didn’t change, but they’ve added younger players and a new coach known for getting the most out of his players.

Dhiren Mahiban: Can’t argue with the Islanders choice. The additions of Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Halak certainly make them better on the back end. Throw in a healthy John Tavares and this is a playoff team.

Mike Halford: Isles. Three of the Metro’s playoff teams from last year — Rangers, Flyers and Blue Jackets — have their issues and could take a step back.

2.Of all the teams that made the playoffs last season, the most likely to miss the playoffs is…

JB: Philadelphia. The blue line was already a concern before Kimmo Timonen was diagnosed with blood clots. Can’t say I’m the biggest believer in Steve Mason either.

JO: Philadelphia. Even if that offensive attack is so potent that it’s very scary to pick against them.

RD: Columbus. I really want to believe in the Blue Jackets, but with Nathan Horton out and Ryan Johansen missing training camp, I’m really wondering about the offense.

CT: Detroit. Aging core group of forwards that’s struggled to stay healthy. And that playoff streak, at 23 years now, has to end eventually, right?

DM: Detroit. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are coming off injuries and are a year older. Youngsters Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Jurco won’t be catching anyone by surprise this season.

MH: Columbus. Will get off to a slow start (Horton/Jenner/Murray out, Johansen trying to get up to speed) and never recover.

3. The Red Wings have made the playoffs 23 straight seasons. Will they make it 24?

JB: No. I absolutely hate betting against a Mike Babcock-coached team, but it feels like the end of an era in Detroit.

JO: Yes. It won’t be pretty, but Babcock will scowl his way into another postseason and then gain the Bill Belichick-like power he craves … just maybe not in Detroit.

RD: Yes. They’re lucky they moved from the Western Conference to the East when they did.

CT: No. Again, health a big concern. Not entirely sold on their goaltending, either.

DM: No. Health and young players providing a repeat performance are big concerns.

MH: Yes. I don’t get why everybody’s so down on the Wings. They had 93 points last year with basically half their roster. Zetterberg’s healthy, Howard’s healthy and Nyquist is primed for his first full NHL season.

4. The Edmonton Oilers have missed the playoffs eight straight seasons. Will they make it nine?

JB: Yes. Too many good teams in the West, combined with too little experience down the middle. I think they’ll be harder to play against though.

JO: Yes. This is the first time I’ve nearly been lured in by the siren call of their potential, but a stacked West provides the beeswax to resist for one more year.

RD: Yes. I think the Oilers are moving in the right direction, but I look at their competition and I just don’t see how Edmonton can squeeze into the playoffs.

CT: Yes. They play in the Pacific Division.

DM: Yes. The Pacific Division is just too strong and the Oilers are predominantly young and inexperienced.

MH: I want to say no just to be different, but yes.

5. The worst team in the NHL will be…

JB: Calgary. But holy heck could the Flames be dangerous in a few years if they get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

JO: Buffalo. The Sabres’ third jersey should be a tank … with swords.

RD: Buffalo. The Sabres were remarkably bad last season and I don’t think they’ve closed the gap between them and the rest of the league.

CT: Florida. Even with Roberto Luongo and Shawn Thornton.

DM: Carolina. Jordan Staal is out 3-4 months. Now Jeff Skinner’s health is in question.

MH: Carolina. Even the owner wants out of this mess.

6. The biggest wildcard team (i.e. could be good, could be awful) is…

JB: Islanders. On paper, they’re a lot better than last season. That said, I always get nervous about “good on paper” teams, and I have trouble putting 100 percent faith in an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1993.

JO: Edmonton. They actually employ two goalies who could conceivably be above average. But…Oilers.

RD: Washington. If Braden Holtby plays well, if Barry Trotz can get the most out of the players, then they could be something special. This team has plenty of risks though.

CT: Toronto. The Leafs give up a lot of shots, and it caught up with them last season. But this team has good players. They just need to be used the right way.

DM: Toronto. So many “ifs” on this team. The roster has potential though.

MH: San Jose. I literally have no idea what to expect from a team that may have had a nervous breakdown this summer. The Sharks could win the division. They could also be a steaming pile of diapers. Neither would surprise me.

source: Getty Images7. Are the San Jose Sharks more likely to be a complete disaster or Stanley Cup champs?

JB: Stanley Cup champs. I just remember what people were saying about the Bruins after they blew that 3-0 lead to the Flyers in 2010. We all know what they did the next year. (That being said, I’m not ruling out complete disaster.)

JO: Stanley Cup champs. Even after a dopey offseason, the Sharks didn’t blow everything up. I will change my tune if they foolishly trade Joe Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau, however.

RD: Stanley Cup champs. It’s hard to look at their roster and see them as anything other than a playoff team.

CT: Stanley Cup champs. I would define complete disaster as missing the playoffs. Don’t see that happening.

DM: Stanley Cup champs?! C’mon, this team has never been past the conference final. It’ll stay that way.

MH: Complete disaster. No, wait, Stanley Cup champs. No, wait, complete disaster. No, wait…

8. True or false: the Colorado Avalanche will prove the analytics guys right and regress.

JB: True. Tough to say how far they’ll regress, but I sure don’t see them winning the Central again. Wouldn’t be shocked if they missed the playoffs.

JO: True. I don’t think Semyon Varlamov can replicate that “Dominik Hasek carrying Buffalo” impression from 2013-14.

RD: True. I can’t see them matching last season’s 52-22-8 record, but they should still make the playoffs.

CT: True, but they’ll still qualify for the playoffs.

DM: True, they set the bar awfully high last season, but they’ll still make the playoffs.

MH: True. And I, for one, welcome our new fancy stats overlords and would like to remind them that as a trusted internet blogger, I can be helpful in browbeating others into their nerdy ways.

9. One team that isn’t getting enough respect is…

JB: Pittsburgh. Yes, the Pens have had some serious postseason letdowns in recent seasons, but it’s not like they’ve gone out in the first round every year. I also really liked the Christian Ehrhoff signing.

JO: Vancouver. Their core is getting a little creaky, but everyone (save the occasional Chris Higgins) looked worse in John Tortorella’s ill-fitting system.

RD: The New York Rangers. They made it to the Stanley Cup Final, but seven teams have better odds than them to be the 2015 champions.

CT: Anaheim. They play in California. They’re in the shadow of the L.A. Kings, Stanley Cup champs.

DM: Pittsburgh. Sure they cleaned out their front office and fired their head coach, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin give this team a chance to win every season. 

MH: Nashville. They played basically all of last year without Pekka Rinne, yet still finished with 88 points. And the Laviolette/Ribeiro/Roy additions should improve the offense.

10. One team that’s getting too much respect is…

JB: Dallas. The exciting Stars are one of my favorite teams to watch, but that blue line is nowhere near championship caliber.

JO: Dallas. Brutal conference, walking a tightrope with shaky defense and Kari Lehtonen’s fragility, yet that tantalizing array of talent makes them a fun watch.

RD: Anaheim. The Ducks have a strong offense and getting Ryan Kesler helps. However, they’re betting it all on a pair of talented, but still very inexperienced goaltenders.

CT: Colorado. Took some very good steps last year. But it was just one season. Do it again.

DM: Anaheim. Ryan Kesler was certainly a great offseason acquisition, but last time I checked, he doesn’t play goal. Two inexperienced goaltenders will hurt their chances. 

MH: Wait, when did Colorado get too much respect? And the correct answer is Dallas.

11. The number of teams with a legitimate chance of winning the Stanley Cup is…

JB: Nine. (Los Angeles, Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis, San Jose, Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Montreal.)

JO: Same Nine. (Los Angeles, Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis, San Jose, Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Montreal.)

RD: Ten. (Boston, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, St. Louis, Chicago, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim.)

CT: Seven (Boston, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, Anaheim, San Jose, Chicago, L.A.)

DM: Six (Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Anaheim, L.A., St. Louis)

MH: Six (Boston, Pittsburgh, L.A., Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa Bay)

source: Getty Images12. The last team to make your cut was…

JB: Montreal. With PK Subban, Carey Price, and the relatively easy Eastern Conference earning the Habs the nod.

JO: Anaheim. On one hand, the Ducks lack the depth and stability of the West’s best teams. On the other, they have more than $9 million in cap space if management wants to invest in some reinforcements.

RD: Anaheim, for the reasons mentioned above.

CT: Pittsburgh. Never really considered leaving them off.

DM: St. Louis. They haven’t made it past the second round since 2002, but the pieces are coming together nicely.  

MH: Tampa Bay. Love the upgrades.

13. The best team to miss your cut was…

JB: Minnesota. With the goaltending uncertainty and all the other tough Western Conference teams going against the Wild.

JO: The Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist heals many wounds, but they suffered some tough losses this offseason.

RD: Dallas. I have concerns about their blueline and that’s what kept them off my list, but they’re strong in every other respect.

CT: Montreal. They’re a final four team, but getting to the next level, I’m not sure.

DM: The Rangers. They got to the final last year, but lost some key players this summer.

MH: Anaheim. Loaded up front, not so much on defense.

14. The Canadian team with the best chance to win the country’s first Stanley Cup since 1993 is…

JB: Obvious answer is Montreal. The sad thing for Canadian hockey fans? Vancouver ranks No. 2 on my list. And while I think they’ll fight for a playoff spot, it’s hard to call the Canucks Cup contenders anymore.

JO: Montreal faces the easier path to the championship round, boasts an elite goalie (Carey Price) and an elite blueliner (P.K. Subban) plus very good prime-age players and a potential breakout candidate in Alex Galchenyuk. They’re a tempting finalist pick even beyond the Canadian confines, honestly.

RD: Montreal by default. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Canadiens are a good team, but it’s not like they have much competition among their Canadian counterparts.

CT: Montreal. Wouldn’t surprise me if the Habs are the only Canadian team to make the playoffs — again.

DM: Montreal. With Carey Price healthy last season, they could’ve been in the final last year.

MH: Montreal. There’s no other real answer here.

source: Getty Images
John Gibson

15. The goaltending storyline you’re most interested to follow is…

JB: The one in Anaheim, where the Ducks are going with “the kids,” John Gibson and Frederik Andersen.

JO: Anaheim’s my first vote, although I’m quite excited to see what happens regarding contract years for Marc-Andre Fleury and Antti Niemi, too.

RD: Anaheim’s, but for the sake of being different, I’ll say St. Louis. I’m a big fan of the Blues and part of that is because I believe Brian Elliott is capable of leading that team.

CT: Vancouver. Ryan Miller was the big free agent signing and is working with a new goalie coach in Rollie Melanson. Plus, back-up Eddie Lack has looked good in the preseason. Plus, what is Vancouver without a goaltending controversy? Come on…

DM: Toronto. The Leafs brought back James Reimer despite an obvious rift with head coach Randy Carlyle. What happens if Jonathan Bernier suffers a significant injury this season? We all remember how it went down the stretch last year.

MH: Carolina. Is Cam Ward going to be the league’s highest-paid backup? And if he is, how bad will that look on what could be the NHL’s worst team?

16. A young player you expect to burst onto the scene is…

JB: Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton. Currently pegged as the Oilers’ second-line center. A big job for an 18-year-old rookie, but a big opportunity, too.

JO: Seth Jones, unless that’s cheating because he already did burst onto the scene? Peter Laviolette’s system could be a fantastic fit for his skills.

RD: Jonathan Drouin. He might start the season on the sidelines, but he could end up leading all rookies in points if he gets a top-six role in Tampa Bay.

CT: Johnny Gaudreau. Might not be the biggest guy, but his skill is unreal.

DM: Johnny Gaudreau. From what I’ve seen in the rookie tournament and preseason action this kid has high-end skill.

MH: Curtis Lazar. Played his way onto Ottawa’s roster despite turning 19 just nine months ago. Bryan Murray loves the kid and already suggested he’ll be up for the whole year, not just a nine-game cameo.

17. One big-name player that will get traded before the deadline is…

JB: I had been all set to answer Bobby Ryan here, but now that he’s signed, I’ll have to go with…ummm…not many quality pending UFAs, are there…ummm…fine, screw it…Evander Kane.

JO: Antti Niemi strikes me as “the odd Shark out.”

RD: I think Evander Kane’s time in Winnipeg is finally drawing to a close.

CT: Evander Kane. Seriously, is he happy in Winnipeg?

DM: Boston still has defensemen Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowski, who become unrestricted after this season. With Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug also restricted after 2014-15, doubt both McQuaid and Bartkowski finish the season in Boston.

MH: Assuming the trade of Matt “Big-Name” Bartkowski doesn’t knock the earth off its rotational axis, I could see Jaromir Jagr going if the Devils are out of playoff contention.

18. The player with the most to prove is…

JB: It’s a tie, between Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Not only do they still have to prove it to everyone outside the Sharks organization, now they have to prove it to their coach and GM as well.

JO: P.K. Subban is already a magnet for often-absurd criticism, but slap a $9 million price tag on him and he best cure all of Montreal’s ills.

RD: Braden Holtby. The Capitals have put a lot of trust in him by signing Justin Peters rather than going with someone with a more realistic shot of competing for the starting gig.

CT: Steven Stamkos. Was on a torrid scoring pace when he suffered a devastating injury. Played in only 37 games last season. He’s the best scorer in the game and I think he wants to prove that over a full 82-game season. (And maybe win a Cup?)

DM: Ryan Johansen. After one good season he spent all summer in a bitter, well-documented contract dispute with the Jackets. I’d say he’s got something to prove.

MH: Mike Richards. The Kings showed faith by not buying him out and Richards returned the favor by actually working out this summer. Seems like both sides are expecting a bounce-back campaign.

source: Reuters19. True or false: this will be Marc-Andre Fleury’s last season in Pittsburgh.

JB: False. Mostly because, who else is going to be the starter? It’s not like the Pens have some stud youngster knocking on the door, and the options are going to be limited in free agency.

JO: True. Thomas Greiss showed some promise in backup gigs (and would probably receive a much cheaper extension), while this new front office is in no way married to “MAF.” Why pay a premium on average goaltending?

RD: False. I think if the Penguins were completely comfortable with Fleury, they would have made more of an effort to re-sign him before the start of the season, but the Penguins’ alternatives aren’t great.

CT: True. Flip of the coin, really. Pending UFA at the end of the season. Perhaps a change of scenery next summer might do him some good?

DM: True. Pending UFA and has some disastrous showings in the playoffs in years past. Not even his pal Sidney Crosby can save him now.

MH: False. Go look at the UFA goalies for 2015. Now tell me the Pens are ready to dump Fleury and test the market.

20. True or false: Barry Trotz will be good for Alex Ovechkin.

JB: True. I really don’t think Trotz wants to turn the Caps into a grinding, defensive team. I think he’s excited to coach a group with so much offensive potential, given that’s what he lacked during most of his tenure in Nashville. Washington just needs a bit more structure, and Trotz is the kind of coach who can teach them that. Which will help, not hinder, Ovechkin.

JO: True, mainly by being smart enough to move him back to LW and by merely not being Adam Oates or Dale Hunter. “Can they coexist?” is a fun story, no doubt, but the true key is getting more out of Ovechkin’s supporting cast.

RD: True. Trotz has been fighting against the idea that he’s a defensive coach and with that in mind, I think the changes he’ll seek from Ovechkin will largely be tweaks rather than part of an effort to reinvent him.

CT: True. Trotz has always been able to get more from less in Nashville. His biggest star was a defenseman in Shea Weber. Interesting to see what he can get out of with so much scoring ability.

DM: True. Trotz will get more out of Ovechkin than Adam Oates and Dale Hunter did.

MH: True. Moving Ovi back to left wing was a good start, too.

21. The most successful new head coach will be…

JB: Willie Desjardins in Vancouver. A much better fit than the last guy. 

JO: Desjardins, mainly by not being Torts.

RD: I’ll take the easy way out and say Willie Desjardins. The bar has been set very low.

CT: Mike Johnston. He has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Helpful.

DM: I’ll go Johnston. Crosby and Malkin. Enough said.

MH: Gerard Gallant in Florida. Mostly because the bar was set so low. Also, he hasn’t been mentioned yet.

22. The least successful new head coach will be…

JB: Bill Peters in Carolina. Not because of him, necessarily. That’s just not a very good team.

JO: Peters. Blame the people shopping for the groceries instead of the “cook” in this case, though.

RD: Peter Laviolette. He’s expected to make the Predators a better team offensively, but has he been given the tools to do that?

CT: Bill Peters. Carolina, man.

DM: Agreed Bill Peters has almost no chance with the way the injury bug has bitten already.

MH: Rhymes will Pill Beaters.

source: AP23. The first head coach to be fired will be…

JB: Randy Carlyle in Toronto. Frankly, I was surprised he kept his job at all.

JO: Logically it would be Carlyle, but I get a weird feeling he’s going to linger around. So, instead, I think Paul MacLean will be the fall guy in Ottawa.

RD: Dave Tippett. I realize I’m going against the board and certainly the popular opinion here, but Arizona seems to be setting itself up for a disappointing campaign and I think Tippett will ultimately be the one that pays for that.

CT: Randy Carlyle. The Leafs ended last season on a disastrous note. Honestly, how long does he last with a poor start to this season?

DM: Carlyle. With the promotion of Steve Spott, it appears Brendan Shanahan may have Carlyle’s replacement already on the bench.

MH: Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. First sign of trouble and he’s gone. Remember, Doug Armstrong fired Davis Payne just 13 games into the ’11-12 campaign.

24. The NHL general manager on the hottest seat is…

JB: Has to be Doug Wilson in San Jose. Such a bizarre offseason. Nobody’s opened himself up to more criticism. 

JO: Dave Nonis is basically Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross at this point, watching in anger as some punk kid tries to tell him how to analyze hockey/sell real estate.

RD: David Poile. He removed Trotz. When that doesn’t get Nashville back into the playoffs, I think he’ll be next.

CT: Dave Nonis. He’s a remaining part from the Brian Burke era. Leafs might be best served to just get a fresh face in that post.

DM: Dave Nonis. Like Carlyle’s replacement, Shanahan is high on Kyle Dubas — could be Nonis’ replacement.

MH: I feel like James should go back and re-watch that movie. Anyway, my answer is Doug Wilson.

25. The best offseason addition (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…

JB: Ehrhoff. That guy’s gonna rack up some points with the Pens.

JO: Eschewing sheer value picks (like Steve Downie on the cheap) in favor of overall impact, the Islanders needed reliable goaltending badly and Jaroslav Halak fits that bill.

RD: If we were going on impact compared to his cap hit, I really like the value Chicago is getting in Brad Richards. In terms of overall impact though, I think Ryan Miller will play a big role in turning Vancouver around.

CT: Radim Vrbata. Right-handed shot that loves to shoot, could help Sedin twins get back to their old offensive ways.

DM: Scott Hartnell. Adds experience to a young team.

MH: Ryan Kesler in Anaheim. Him and Getzlaf represent the West’s best one-two punch at center.

26. True or false: This will be Mike Babcock’s final season as head coach of the Red Wings.

JB: True. I don’t think he looks at that team and sees a Stanley Cup in the near future.

JO: True, mainly because he desires (and probably deserves) the kind of sweeping authority that’s unlikely to come in Detroit.

RD: True. There will be no shortage of interested parties and I can’t help but think that if he was committed to re-signing with Detroit, it would have happened by now.

CT: True. What more is left for him to do in Detroit?

DM: True. He’s ready for his next challenge.

MH: True. I think Detroit already has its next head coach under contract — AHL Grand Rapids bench boss Jeff Blashill.

source: Getty Images27. The team that should be most worried about its goaltending is…

JB: Winnipeg. It’s such a glaring weakness, and has been for a while.

JO: Winnipeg. Ondrej Pavelec is the Tyler Myers of goalies; his struggles have been lampooned for long enough that I almost feel kinda bad kicking that dead horse.

RD: Minnesota. Josh Harding is out and they can’t rely on Niklas Backstrom to stay healthy. The Wild have to hope that Darcy Kuemper doesn’t regress, because he might end up as their starter for significant stretches of the season.

CT: Tampa Bay. The Lightning are one Ben Bishop injury away from having to rely on 39-year-old Evgeni Nabokov. He is, however, a step up from the previous back-up, Anders Lindback.

DM: Winnipeg. With just three NHL games to his name, I’m not sure how much better Michael Hutchinson is behind Pavelec.

MH: Winnipeg. Did someone really say Tampa Bay?

28. Your worst prediction from last season was…

JB: The Oilers making the playoffs. Not my finest moment. Though I did nail the Canucks being a disaster. So, you know…whatever…gimme a break, predictions are hard.

JO: Let’s just say I was a bit too eager about the rebirth of the Seattle Sonics (in the form of an NHL team).

RD: Calling Vincent Lecavalier the best offseason signing and Valtteri Filppula the worst? Yeah, that didn’t play out like I thought it would.

CT: Oilers making the playoffs. I followed that up by saying that of the teams that made the playoffs in 2013, the Habs were the most likely to miss the post-season in 2014. Brutal.

DM: I’m new here, but trust me, my predictions are never wrong.

MH: I said nobody would challenge Luongo in Vancouver and ’13-14 would be like his first season as a Canuck, “when he played a career-high 76 games and earned a Vezina nomination.” Whoops.

29. The prediction you’re least confident about this season is…

JB: Um, all of them? But if I had to pick one, my instincts are telling me not to be so bullish about the Capitals.

JO: It’s a 28-way tie! Really though, forecasting firings makes me really uncomfortable, especially since Paul MacLean is a pretty good coach with an absolutely breathtaking ‘stache.

RD: I have a feeling I’ll be proved wrong when it comes to Tippett being fired.

CT: Trotz being good for Ovechkin. Just not confident.

DM: Dubas replacing Nonis as GM. Does he even have a driver’s license yet?

MH: Hitch getting fired first. Two years ago I said Joel Quenneville would be first out the door, and Chicago won the Cup. I’ve really got my finger on the coaching pulse.

30. Finally, make a crazy prediction that probably won’t happen, but on second thought, you never know…

JB: Andrew Barroway takes control of the Coyotes, promises to keep the team in Glendale, then starts making a lot of business trips to Seattle for some reason.

JO: Antti Niemi gets traded, then leads his new team to a playoff series victory against San Jose … because that’s just the kind of thing that always seems to happen to the Sharks.

RD: Joe Thornton will win the Art Ross Trophy. After being stripped of the captaincy, listening all summer about how the Sharks need to focus on their future, and perhaps being asked to waive his no-trade clause, he’ll have his best season since Boston sent him to San Jose.

CT: The Stanley Cup finalists come from California and Florida. I can see the headlines: ‘Sun shines on Stanley Cup Final’ and ‘Stanley Cup Final heats up.’ I’m bad with headlines.

DM: The Calgary Flames end their five-year drought and qualify for the playoffs. Hey… they’re further along in the rebuild than Edmonton.

MH: The Canucks and Ducks meet in the first round of the playoffs. In overtime of Game 7, Kesler gets called for diving, the Canucks score on the power play, and Luongo tweets something funny.

Enjoy the season, everyone!

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