Need for speed: Sharks, Pens brace for ‘fast hockey’ in Stanley Cup Final

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It will be speed vs. speed in the Stanley Cup final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

San Jose got through the Western Conference the same way Pittsburgh got through the East: with plenty of depth and speed to kill. The final will feature the three top playoff scorers in the Sharks’ Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns against Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said after the Penguins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the East final Thursday night. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their D involved (and) their power play is really dangerous. … It’s going to be quite the series.”

The Sharks are in the Cup final for the first time in their 24-season franchise history and in Peter DeBoer’s first year as coach. The Penguins are back for the first time since winning it all in 2009 and made it after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in December.

In his first meeting with them, Sullivan challenged his players to be great and told them that’s how they win in the NHL. They’ve won in the playoffs on the strength of scoring from Crosby and speedy wingers Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Game 7 hero Bryan Rust, not to mention the goaltending of 22-year-old rookie Matt Murray.

Kessel is Pittsburgh’s leading scorer with 18 points on nine goals and nine assists after coming over from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade last summer.

“I don’t think you could dream about that. You never could expect this,” Kessel said. “This is a huge moment in my career and my life.”

San Jose is also rolling along thanks to a summer pickup in goaltender Martin Jones, who was the Los Angeles Kings’ backup when they won the Cup in 2014. Couture, Pavelski and Burns are piling up the points, but this run is about aging veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally breaking through.

Thornton and Marleau, the top two picks in the 1997 draft, made the playoffs together with the Sharks in nine of 10 previous seasons but had yet to make the Cup final until now.

Crosby and Malkin made it twice, losing in 2008 to the Detroit Red Wings before winning the following season. At the time, it looked like the young core that also featured defenseman Kris Letang would challenge for the Cup every year.

Now they have a chance to add to their legacy, but it won’t be easy even with home-ice advantage in the series that starts Monday night in Pittsburgh. The Sharks are the Penguins’ deepest opponent yet.

“The Penguins should expect a team that’s deeper, quicker than Tampa, and a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence,” NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk said.

Confidence isn’t lacking for either team. The Sharks knocked off the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues to get here, while the Penguins beat the New York Rangers, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and defending East-champion Lightning.

Davidson pleased with Rangers’ first practice in return

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The New York Rangers were playing some stellar hockey coming out of the All-Star break to move into playoff contention. After four months away during the NHL’s stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic, team president John Davidson liked what he saw in their first practice back.

“I feel strong about the way we played at the time of the pause, and after what I saw today … I feel really good about things,” Davidson said Monday on a video conference call with reporters.

“I’m very proud of our group. Not just the players, but the training staff, the doctors, everybody involved. …. We’ve been going at this for eight weeks, 10 weeks. We’ve had Zoom calls, we’ve talked about the virus itself and how you can protect yourself, the players, the coaches, the staff, everybody has paid attention to it.”

The Rangers were 19-18-4 in early January after losing three straight on a trip through Western Canada. They picked up their defensive intensity and got into a groove after the All-Star Game with a 12-2-1 run to climb into the playoff race. A 2-4-1 stretch followed to leave them two points behind Carolina and Columbus for one of the Eastern Conference’s two wild cards when the season was interrupted on March 12.

When the league decided to go straight to a 24-team postseason in May upon resumption, the Rangers were seeded 11th in the East based on points percentage and drew a matchup with sixth-seeded Carolina in a five-game series in a play-in round for the Eastern Conference playoffs in Toronto starting on Aug. 1.

“Guys are excited for the opportunity we have right now,” Mika Zibanejad said. “There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of fun in that locker room. I’m hoping we’ll continue where we left off.”

The Swedish center had a career-high 41 goals in 57 games. His 75 points eclipsed his previous best of 74 set the previous season in 82 games.

“I felt obviously more confident and the puck went in,” Zibanejad said. “I didn’t do it by myself. I get put in pretty good situations, pretty good spots on the ice and teammates did an unbelievable job to get me the puck in that situation and I was able to score.”

One of those teammates was Artemi Panarin, the biggest prize in free agency last summer. Panarin had a stellar debut season in New York with a career-high 95 points in just 69 games. He finished with career bests in goals (32), assists (63) and power-play points (24).

Rangers coach David Quinn said he wants his team to pick up where it left off, but also preached caution during this training camp.

“We really liked a lot that was going on with our chemistry and our D pairings,” he said. “I want to give these guys an opportunity to find that again. That might take some time because every guy’s had an opportunity to do different things when it comes to staying in shape during this four-month break. … Some guys had more access to things than others.”

A big question remains concerning which goalie will get the start for Game 1 against the Hurricanes.

Veteran star Henrik Lundqvist struggled in the first half of the season and saw backup Alexandar Georgiev (17-14-2 with a 3.04 goals-against average) get increased playing time. Igor Shesterkin made his NHL debut in early January and went 10-2-0 with a 2.52 GAA to earn the No. 1 spot.

Davidson said all three looked “very sharp” in Monday’s practice, adding “it’s going to be up to the coaches when they put their heads together and make that decision.”

Lundqvist said the time away gave him a chance to work on his skills and conditioning, as well as his mental preparation.

“I feel coming back now I’m in a really good place in all three areas,” he said. “We’re three guys competing for one spot, so we’ll see who gets to play.

”I just take it day by day here and work as hard as I can and see if it’s enough to play. And if it’s not enough to play I’ll try to be very supportive and just go from there.”

Quinn plans to let the competition play out during training camp before deciding on his starter for the series opener.

“I had a meeting with all three of them about how important the next three weeks are going to be,” the coach said.

Pucks and masks prevalent as 24 NHL teams open training camp

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St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington is so accustomed to wearing a mask, he didn’t mind doing so for the past four months during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Sometimes, I forgot I’m wearing it while driving,” Binnington said Monday, when the Blues were among the NHL’s 24 teams to open training camp for the upcoming playoffs. “You make fun of those people who are driving by themselves with a mask on, but I sometimes forget.”

Goalies weren’t the only ones wearing masks as the NHL hit the ice, en masse, in the first full glimpse of hockey’s return since the regular season was placed on pause March 12.

Masked equipment managers patrolled the benches, clearing them of water bottles and towels following practices. In Nashville, general manager David Poile, 70, wore one while watching the Predators practice from a private suite.

And in Dallas, Stars interim coach Rick Bowness wore a mask while observing practice from an empty bench. At 65, he wasn’t taking any chances.

“I was going to err on the side of caution. I’m still very nervous about the COVID, and we haven’t tested our players since last Thursday,” Bowness said. Once results come back, he intends to return to the ice, perhaps as early as Wednesday

Players and staff all have their eyes on resuming the season with an expanded 24-team playoff set to begin in two hub cities – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, — on Aug. 1.

“On the ice is normal,” Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “On the ice is same rules what we have before. But soon as you step off the ice in the locker room, everybody have to wear a mask. It’s kind of weird, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to get used to it.”

Players and everyone else who will be spending up to two months inside the “bubble” — including hotel staff, bus drivers and arena workers — will have no other choice but to get accustomed to the new reality if the NHL hopes to complete its most unique season. Once games resume, they will be played in empty arenas, with as many as three games played per day at each site, and with the Stanley Cup awarded in late September at the earliest.

There is no guarantee the league will be able to pull it off.

Though the familiar sound of pucks, skates and sticks echoed through arenas once again, the reminders of COVID-19 were also prevalent.

The NHL announced that 43 players had tested positive for the coronavirus from June 8 through the end of the league’s optional workouts. In Toronto, star forward Auston Matthews confirmed he tested positive while spending the break at his home in Arizona last month.

“It was the safest place to be,. And then obviously things flipped pretty quickly there,” Matthews said. “I did my quarantine, and I’m feeling healthy now, so it’s all good.”

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins voluntarily sidelined nine players after learning they may have had secondary exposure to a person testing positive for COVID-19. NHL rules barred the Penguins from revealing who the players were, but the most notable player not on the ice was forward Patric Hornqvist.

Captain Sidney Crosby remained upbeat.

“It’s a matter of everyone working together and doing our best to be safe,” Crosby said. “Whether you are a player or a fan, you miss the game. You also have to understand the seriousness of what’s around you. We’re trying to find a balance for that… I’m optimistic.”

It was a far different story in Denver, where the Avalanche had nearly a fully complement of players practicing, which is a considerable turnaround. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Cale Makar and goalie Philipp Grubauer were among the formerly injured players back on the ice, with only center Colin Wilson deemed not fit to play.

“The fun thing about returning now, after having some time off and jumping right into the most important time of year, is that you’re going to see everyone’s best players healthy, rested,” coach Jared Bednar said. “We’re all anxious and champing at the bit ready to go, which should be a lot of fun.”

In St. Louis, the defending champion Blues welcomed back scoring star Vladimir Tarasenko, who sustained a major injury to his shoulder 10 games into the season and was projected to miss five months.

“It’s a nice little secret weapon we’ve had all year, waiting to come back,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said of Tarasenko. “Seemed like a pretty seamless transition, jumping back in with the rest of us.”

In Nashville, coach John Hynes drew out plays on a white board at the edge of the ice, with players gathered closely around him. Inside the arena, half the seats inside the lower bowl stayed stacked away, leaving concrete around much of the ice.

Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne said the unknowns and questions left him concerned during his return from his native Finland to the United States. Now, the 37-year-old goalie feels much more comfortable after seeing the protocols being used.

“We come to the Bridgestone Arena and you could eat off the floor,” Rinne said. “I mean, it’s clean. It’s a safe place so far.”

Day 1 of NHL training camps: Uncertainty about Blackhawks’ Crawford, and more

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Monday, July 13 represented a big day in the NHL return-to-play plan, as formal training camps began — naturally there was plenty of news.

To little surprise, such training camp news also brought uncertainty. This post won’t hit on all 24 NHL teams involved in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but let’s take a look at some of the rumblings from around the league:

Blackhawks’ Crawford, other absences lead to speculation

At the moment, the NHL elects not to name players or teams while announcing positive COVID-19 tests.

The bright side of that is that players gain at least a modicum of privacy. The downside is that fans and others are left to speculate about the nature of absences. To some extent, this follows the NHL’s clear-as-mud transparency when it comes to injury updates already, only turned up to 11.

Rank Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford as one of the players people are speculating about during this first day of NHL training camps. If you’re looking for more from the Blackhawks on Crawford, you were largely out of luck.

“For now, he’s just unfit to play,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I think the NHL has been pretty clear that’s going to be the policy going forward as far as how we’ll announce all injuries. So, that’s all I have for you.”

Blackhawks fans are probably used to uncertainty regarding Crawford, being that his career was threatened by concussion issues. Such issues, and Chicago’s mediocre overall play, might have pushed Crawford’s strong work under the radar. During the last three months of the truncated season, Crawford’s save percentage didn’t sink below a splendid .927. For a team as porous defensively as the Blackhawks, they must hope that Crawford will eventually be fit to play — particularly after trading Robin Lehner.

It would be a sad way for Crawford to end his Blackhawks career, too, as he’s a pending UFA.

Now, other goalies sat out day one of NHL training camps, too. Marc-Andre Fleury joined Crawford with that distinction. But while the Blackhawks shared few Crawford details, the Golden Knights deemed MAF’s absence a maintenance day.

Though not a comprehensive list, here are a few other notable absences from day one of NHL training camps:

Noteworthy names attending NHL training camps on day one

Going over every single player who participated would be a fool’s errand. Consider a few names that stood out, though.

Assorted bits, including Gritty

Now, for some quick random bits.

Matt Niskanen said it right:

“The world is pretty bonkers right now,” Niskanen said, via Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nothing is normal … But as hockey players, we just want that (Cup) chance.”

Actually, (Niskanen’s … Flyers’ colleague?) Gritty also got it right:

The first one to the rink? Well, the name Gritty makes sense then, I guess.

If you’re looking for the best gesture of them all, it’s probably the Oilers’ tribute to Colby Cave.

Although, the Maple Leafs also made quite a statement by wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts as a group:

If news and other bits from day one of NHL training camps are any indication, there will be a lot of stories to sort through. At least some of them will involve Gritty, too, so that’s nice.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL: 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 (June 8)

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The NHL announced that 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2, which began on June 8. Phase 3 (formal training camps) began on Monday (July 13).

The NHL explained how those positive COVID-19 test results broke down since June 3.

  • 30 NHL players participating in Phase 2 (limited skating at team facilities with small groups of teammates) tested positive for COVID-19. The league noted that more than 600 NHL players participated in Phase 2 activities.
  • The NHL noted that they’re aware of 13 positive COVID-19 cases among players who stayed outside of Phase 2 protocol. (It’s unclear if that number could climb if more players still need to be tested.)

In sharing this announcement, the NHL allowed a look into its daunting process. The league conducted almost 5,000 COVID-19 tests, with the 600-plus players involved. (That’s certainly thorough. On the other hand, one can only speculate about the vast quantity of COVID-19 tests required for the entire NHL playoff process. Some will argue that it’s simply not worth it.)

Check out the full NHL release about 43 players testing positive for COVID-19 here:

Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, and Roman Polak rank among the players who’ve opted out of an NHL return to play for various reasons. Other NHL players face a Monday 5 p.m. ET deadline to opt out. (Although there could be special circumstances, such as the Canadiens and Max Domi waiting to make a decision.)

More on positive COVID-19 results, and the process the NHL is undergoing

The NHL states that players who tested positive are following CDC and Health Canada protocols, such as self-isolating. It also noted that the league will not identify players or teams involving positive COVID-19 tests.

Of course, that won’t stop speculation, whether players or teams are named officially or not.

Earlier on Monday, word surfaced that the Penguins “voluntarily sidelined” nine players who may have had “secondary exposure” to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. As of this writing, players haven’t been named, leaving people to speculate.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews confirmed that he contracted COVID-19, backing up a June report by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. Matthews noted that he was still able to train despite the positive COVID-19 test.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” Matthews said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Most importantly, Matthews said he’s feeling good and healthy after self-isolating.

Either way, Matthews’ name surfacing caused controversy. It remains to be seen if reporters and others unearth other names as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers approach, and you can bet people will try to guess if the league and its teams decide not to be particularly forthcoming.

Plenty of challenges ahead for the NHL

Read the full list of critical dates here, but consider these points of interest as the NHL aims to award the 2020 Stanley Cup amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out.
July 26: Teams report to their hub city. Eastern Conference teams go to Toronto, while West teams head to Edmonton.
July 28-30: Exhibition games.
Aug 1: 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4).
Aug 11: First Round begins.
Aug 25: Second Round begins.
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin.
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins.
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded.

The NHL set expectations for regular updates regarding positive COVID-19 tests. Can the league navigate all of those bumps in the road to October, mid-November training camps, and a 2020-21 season that may start as early as Dec. 1?

We’ll have to wait and see.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.