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Stricter faceoff rules have put some defensemen in an ‘unnatural’ position

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Well, this is awkward.

Stricter rule enforcement in the National Hockey League has led to more defensemen taking draws this season and, well, it has been a challenge – even for some of the best players in the world.

“It’s a little bit unnatural,” Arizona Coyotes defenseman Luke Schenn said. “It’s not something you see all the time. You see a D-man go in there, you’re probably not going to win too many of them.”

Such is life for NHL defensemen these days, thrown into the faceoff circle to do something they never figured was in their job description. Like position players taking the mound to pitch in a Major League Baseball game or NFL running backs having to throw a pass, defensemen aren’t accustomed to taking faceoffs and almost never work on it in practice. But this season, defensemen are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory much more often as officials order forwards out of the circle for failing to follow the protocol .

Faceoffs are one of the most tactical elements in hockey, a chess match played out over a couple of seconds between players who have spent much of their lives perfecting their craft to win possession of the puck. Blindingly fast work with sticks and leverage are key. It’s no place for bigger defensemen with their longer sticks, most of whom are far more comfortable handling the puck once it’s won back to them.

Eleven different defensemen have taken a faceoff so far this season and 64 since 3-on-3 overtime was instituted in 2015-16. No matter how many times it happens or how awkward, it’s on the highlight reel and becomes the subject of ribbing from teammates.

“They’re going to give you a hard time because they know it’s not something you do all the time,” Calgary Flames defenseman Michael Stone said. “If you do win one, it’s pure excitement, I think, from everybody.”

Defensemen have been involved in 92 faceoffs over the past two-plus seasons and have won only about a third of them. Maybe a few of the unlikely victories have come from being underestimated.

“It’s funny that when you get a D-man in, a lot of times those centermen relax and the D-men are all-in,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who grew up playing defense. “There’s a lot of cheers that go on when a defenseman goes in there and wins a draw.”

Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is 6-foot-6 and a Norris Trophy finalist as one of the best defensemen in the league. He recently was pressed into faceoff duty on a penalty kill in overtime. No pressure, right?

Hedman put his stick down, beat Columbus center Nick Foligno and is now a perfect 1 for 1. He was stunned.

“The guys were probably as shocked as I was that I actually won it,” Hedman said. “I could probably not do it again. I guess my timing was perfect in that moment.”

Call it perfect timing, call it luck or call it whatever you want. New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk is 3 for 4 in his career but still remembers losing his first faceoff and getting mad about it.

Of course, Boychuk has put “zero” practice time into it and has a simple, albeit ugly, strategy.

“You just tie up,” Boychuk said. “Try to tie up, at least, and smack it to the wall. Tell the person that you’re going to try to shoot it to.”

Or maybe just lose it intentionally, suggested Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so everyone on your team knows where the puck is going. Because, c’mon, this is probably not going to end well.

“Centermen are so good at faceoffs now, you’re probably going to lose it anyway,” Gardiner said. “You’re kind of just going in there and hoping for the best.”

Hedman is no faceoff specialist like Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. And defensemen face another twist of pressure in addition to trying to a) win the draw and b) avoid taking a faceoff violation penalty trying to do something they aren’t good at:

“For a defenseman, if you lose it you’ve just got to make sure you get into your position right away and make sure you focus on playing D,” Hedman said. “Just make sure that you don’t lose it too clean that they get a scoring opportunity right away. You just try and do as good a job as you possibly can and try and win it obviously, but it’s pretty tough.”

In 19 NHL seasons, Islanders coach Doug Weight took thousands of faceoffs. But he hadn’t thought much about asking defensemen to practice faceoffs – until now.

“Later in periods it’s so prevalent getting thrown out now that you want guys that can come in and take a draw,” Weight said. “The only occasion where we’d have a D is if you’re down 4-on-3, 5-on-3. Obviously it’s a huge piece of puck possession.”

Puck possession? Sure, that’d be great, but most defensemen just don’t want to get embarrassed.

After years of practicing against his brother Mark, a forward for the Ottawa Senators, Stone wants to make sure he at least makes things interesting.

“I’m mostly just playing not to get beat clean,” Stone said. “I’m not looking to win a faceoff clean, especially on that kind of a play. You just try not to get beat clean, do whatever you can to kind of push that in the direction of your guys.”

When Washington defenseman John Carlson stepped in recently for a draw in overtime, he had a sterling record: He had won his lone NHL faceoff. But he lost this one an cursed teammates for not letting him practice faceoffs.

Even though Carlson lost his second career faceoff attempt, he scored the game-winning goal to quiet the razzing from his teammates. Hedman won his and wants his faceoff days to be over.

“Hopefully I don’t have to take any more,” he said, “so I stay 100 percent for the rest of my career.”

Canadiens clobber flat Flyers in Game 2, First Round playoff series now tied 1-1

Canadiens Flyers Habs Game 2 series tied 1-1
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If you’re compiling a list of the most one-sided periods from the NHL return, you can’t ignore how thoroughly the Canadiens dominated the Flyers to open Game 2. From there, the Flyers never really took off, and the Canadiens cruised to a dominant 5-0 Game 2 win to tie the series 1-1.

Chalk it up to a “Win it for Claude” attitude as head coach Claude Julien was hospitalized before Game 2, or any number of motivational factors, but this was a lopsided affair.

It took almost the entire first period for the Flyers to merely earn a shot on goal. By then, the Canadiens were already up 2-0, and then opened the second period on a power play following a controversial penalty whistled on Shayne Gostisbehere defending a breaking Max Domi.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Let’s be honest, though: the Flyers might strain something trying to reach for that moment as an excuse. This was almost a baffling affair, and it was far from Carter Hart‘s fault, as the young goalie got the hook for Brian Elliott after the 4-0 goal.

Carey Price needed to make some nice saves to keep the score the way it was, but this was a sound Game 2 win for Montreal. Price generated his seventh career playoff shutout, stopping all 30 shots. While his performance won’t be the main focus, Price helped stop the Flyers on some power-play opportunities that might have made Game 2 more competitive.

Max Domi ranked among the other standout Canadiens, collecting three assists in Game 2. Also, Jesperi Kotkaniemi continues to look more like the beyond-his-years rookie version of himself, rather than the Kotkaniemi who struggled enough to get demoted to the AHL in 2019-20. Both Kotkaniemi and Tomas Tatar enjoyed two-goal performances against the flummoxed Flyers in Game 2.

Flyers might just want to burn the tape from Game 2 beatdown vs. Canadiens

For the Flyers, there are some questions. Is Travis Konecny OK after leaving the contest with an injury? Could some of this boil down to overconfidence for a team that’s been red-hot really since before the pause (they won nine of their last 10 regular season games).

On one hand, there’s likely less heartache when you just experience a dud of a game. On the other hand, it’s important to do some soul-searching after a game like this. Especially since, as usual, the Habs dealt most of their damage at even-strength.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Philadelphia 2, Montreal 1 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal 5, Philadelphia 0
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Canucks-Blues stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup First Round

Canucks-Blues stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s First Round matchup between the Canucks and Blues. Coverage begins at 630 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Blues stream at 6:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Canucks beat the defending Stanley Cup champs 5-2 in Game 1 on Wednesday. The game was tied 2-2 going into the third period before Vancouver scored three goals in the final 20 minutes to seal the win.

Vancouver lost its first game of the qualifying round vs Minnesota, being shut out in a 3-0 loss. Since then, they have won four
straight games, scoring three-plus goals in every game.

After leading the Blues to a Stanley Cup as a rookie last season, Jordan Binnington has struggled to regain that form in this year’s playoffs. He has lost all three of his starts and allowed five goals on 22 shots in Game 1 against Vancouver, his second straight
game allowing five-plus goals. He allowed a soft goal in the third period from Troy Stecher, which head coach Craig Berube said “He probably wants that one back for sure. But it is what it is.”

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, August 14, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver 5, St. Louis 2
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Avalanche take 2-0 series lead, but Coyotes tested Avs in Game 2

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The Coyotes almost looked like a different team from the passive group the Avalanche handled in Game 1, but the Avs still won Game 2. Thanks to a late game-winning goal by Andre Burakovsky, the Avalanche beat the Coyotes 3-2 in Game 2, taking a 2-0 series lead.

Top Avs make a difference (but so do Avalanche supporting cast members) vs. Coyotes in Game 2

Sometimes, in close games, it boils down to top players like Nathan MacKinnon simply making plays. In a flash, MacKinnon seized an opportunity for … well, a very MacKinnon-like goal. Even a red-hot goalie like Darcy Kuemper can only do so much on chances like these:

The Desert Dogs wouldn’t just roll over in this one, though.

While Taylor Hall wasn’t credited with an assist, he made a nice pass to help set up a Clayton Keller 1-1 goal. Throughout Game 2, the Avalanche and Coyotes traded hard hits and chances aplenty. In particular, Nikita Zadorov threw some questionable checks, including one that prompted an elbowing penalty when he hit Conor Garland, a hidden gem for the Coyotes.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Again, this was a much better effort from the Coyotes. Arizona generated more shots on goal during the second period (15) of Game 2 than the Coyotes did in all of Game 1 (14). Philipp Grubauer wouldn’t ease into a shutout in this one, but he helped the Avs hold on and hang in there.

Nazem Kadri and other supporting cast members seem poised to continue giving the Avalanche a boost when there were times before when it felt like it was MacKinnon’s line or bust. Kadri set up a very nice Andre Burakovsky game-winner, and that was enough for the Avalanche.

The Avalanche hold quite an edge with this 2-0 series lead, but if the Coyotes can stay focused as the two teams turn around for Game 3 on Saturday, this could end up being a lot more interesting than Game 1 indicated.

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes (COL leads 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Colorado 3, Arizona 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Colorado 3, Arizona 2
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien receives stent, heads home

Claude Julien Montreal stent heart
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TORONTO — Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien is returning home to Montreal a day after a stent was placed in a coronary artery. The team said doctors expect a full recovery.

Julien was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto overnight Wednesday with chest pain. He had surgery Thursday.

“Coach Julien would like to convey his most sincere thanks to everyone at St. Michael’s Hospital for the wonderful care he received during his stay,” the Canadiens said in a statement Friday. “He also wishes to personally and sincerely thank everyone who has sent their well wishes during this time.”

Since Julien left the NHL bubble in Toronto, he will have to follow quarantine protocol if he wishes to re-enter it.

Team members wanting to return to the bubble must provide four consecutive negative COVID-19 tests carried out over four days. They will be quarantined for at least that time period, and possibly up to 14 days depending on risk of exposure while outside the bubble.

Kirk Muller will serve as interim head coach for the rest of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers led the series 1-0 entering Game 2 on Friday.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule