The unsung heroes are stepping up in the Stanley Cup Final

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — This is a Stanley Cup Final filled with stars who have won the Hart Trophy, Olympic gold medals and numerous other awards.

With players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, the final features some of the biggest names in hockey.

The one place where those players haven’t showed up so far is on the goal-scoring sheet. In a series that has featured three straight one-goal games all decided either in the final three minutes of regulation or overtime, some of the lesser-known players have delivered the goals.

“You look through these playoffs and third-line, fourth-line guys have stepped up for both teams and scored big goals,” Sharks center Logan Couture said Sunday. “It’s not necessarily that the big guns have scored the huge goals for both teams. You need that when you get to this point.”

Sharks rookie Joonas Donskoi was the latest to get on that list when he scored the overtime winner in San Jose’s 3-2 victory in Game 3 on Saturday night that cut Pittsburgh’s series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is Monday night in San Jose.

Donskoi matched the overtime goal scored just one game earlier by Penguins rookie Conor Sheary. Before that, it had been 30 years since a rookie had scored in overtime in the final when Montreal’s Brian Skrudland did it in Game 2 against Calgary.

But Donskoi and Sheary are far from the only unusual suspects to score in the first three games. Sharks defenseman Justin Braun has two goals in the past two games, matching his total from the previous 40 contests.

“I’m happy I can finally chip in offensively,” Braun said. “A lot of other guys have done a lot of heavy lifting to get us here. I’m just trying to do my part.”

Pittsburgh defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who has 15 goals in 334 career regular season games, scored one of the Penguins’ goals in Game 3 and set up the other that was deflected in by Patric Hornqvist.

Nick Bonino got the Game 1 winner for Pittsburgh when the other goals were scored by rookies Sheary and Bryan Rust.

And after three games, players like Crosby, Malkin, Thornton, Pavelski, Kris Letang, Logan Couture and Brent Burns are all still looking for their first goals.

“You just try to worry about yourself and make sure you’re doing your job and as a team you’re doing the things necessary to give yourself a chance to win games,” Crosby said. “It’s tight. Like I keep seeing year after year, there’s a small margin of error. Just make sure you’re competing and give yourself a chance to create and ultimately produce.”

It hasn’t been like those players haven’t performed well. Crosby was dominant the first two games and set up a pair of goals that helped Pittsburgh take the 2-0 lead. But he got much less generated on the road when the Sharks were able to match top defensive pair Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun against him consistently. Even a few shifts with Malkin couldn’t generate many chances for Pittsburgh.

“We’re playing against good defensemen,” Malkin said. “They play so close and so tight, it’s tough to shoot sometimes.”

Thornton had a few good chances late, especially after Couture joined him and Pavelski on San Jose’s top line. But Pavelski, who leads the NHL with 13 playoff goals, has been mostly silent with no points and only four shots on goal through three games.

“It’s tough this time of year,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “Every round, he’s getting a lot of attention, just like Brent Burns is getting a lot of attention, just like Jumbo is getting a lot of attention. That’s not an easy role to play. I have no doubt he’s going to break through here. He has all year for us. It’s just a matter of time.”

One of the factors limiting Pavelski’s effectiveness has been Pittsburgh’s propensity to block shots. The Penguins blocked 38 shots alone in Game 3, including 12 from Burns. With fewer point shots getting to the net, Pavelski has been unable to utilize his elite hand-eye coordination to deflect pucks like he was so successfully the first three rounds.

“We’re creating some chances,” Pavelski said. “It’s just that end result hasn’t been there. You just stay with it, keep trying to have the puck and play with it and get open. Try to get a few more.”

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.