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Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)

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As he’s done for eight previous Winter Classics, NBC’s Doc Emrick will be behind the mic for Monday’s game at CitiField between the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.

The date will be 10 years since the Sabres took part in the inaugural event at Ralph Wilson Stadium — a snowy, messy picturesque day that saw a dramatic end off the stick of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Emrick was there, too, and his call of Crosby’s winner quickly became legendary.

The afternoon was the NHL going up against college football bowl season, which historically had played some of its top games on Jan. 1. In 2008, the Winter Classic went head-to-head against four NCAA football games, including Michigan-Florida in the Capital One Bowl. The curiosity factor into the outdoor hockey game coupled with the weather situation resulted in interest rising as the game went along.

“But the thing that I was guessing as the rain turned to sleet and then the sleet turned into snow and then the snow started piling up even more, was people calling people on the phone and saying ‘are you watching this game in Buffalo?’,” Emrick told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “[J]ust as the snow did, the viewership started to build, too. Just [like] that construction site you have that hole in the fence that people can stop on the sidewalk and peer in and look, they wanted to see how people were going to handle this. That’s the beauty of outdoor games. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and if the elements enter in how are these people there that are paid to do this going to somehow or other compensate for what the elements are bringing in?

“What better place than Buffalo to have a game like this and what better elements to have than snow and frequent stoppages and getting the Zamboni out to scrape it again and have all of these happen and then have the dramatic finish. It couldn’t have been a bigger star.”

We spoke with Emrick about calling that first game, his favorite venues and where his famous Crosby line came from.

Enjoy.

Q. It was a pretty special day for fans and the players involved, but what about the broadcasters? You weren’t just calling a typical hockey game.

EMRICK: “The strange thing was leading up to it, I don’t think any of us had a grasp on what it would really be like until the day of. We went out there the day before and we began by treating it like we would a regular game. [We] went out the day of the practices to see what a rink inside a football stadium would look like because it was the first of one of those things for us and we got as many stories as players as we could after that practice.

“We realized that with the stands being largely empty that day, that we had a rough idea that it would be pretty interesting the next day, especially given what the forecast was and what Buffalo’s persona was when it came to winter storms… We didn’t have a real feel on how spectacular it became until the players started down the ramps from the football dressing rooms and the bagpipes were playing and those bursts of fire were going up in the air. Still to this day guys will talk about never having heard 70-plus-thousand people cheering at once as they did for both teams as they made their entry and having that roar building.

“I believe Brian Campbell said it last year, it’s one of those things that builds and you hear it and you hear it get louder and it rolls. I think that’s the thing that we notice in all of these stadiums, but particularly in football stadiums.”

Q. How long did your notes last in that snow considering you and Eddie Olczyk were positioned outside?

“About the second period. I was advised beforehand that a smart thing to do was to get plexiglass and put our notes underneath that and that made a lot of sense. But my background is to use Sharpies and to record different colors of Sharpies for the different teams so they have contrasting colors. But the trouble is when you took it out from underneath the plexiglass to do that and then you put it back in, invariably some of the rain and then later on, the snow that had melted would roll underneath the plexiglass and get on your notes and get on your scorecard.

“By the third period, it was starting to run pretty badly and then there was that one time when Eddie and I were on camera that it had all pretty well drained off and it was in bad shape. I save all of my scorecards, so I still have that but it’s practically illegible. There are only a few things you can read on it.”

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Q. Has your call of an outdoor game evolved since that very first one?

“Well, what has evolved is this: it’s not the description of the game because I don’t prepare anything odd to say because it’s an outdoor game. I’m just calling a hockey game and I realize I’m pre-occupied more with the event than I am a game. In terms of who has the puck and describing passes and things like that, I don’t do as much as that. Part of the reason is that it is more of an event for people who may or not watch a lot of hockey. Secondly, our location is outdoors down next to the penalty box and it is somewhat difficult to see from either the press box in these giant stadiums or down near the penalty box because you can see really well in front of you, but to the sides you have difficulty and you have to shift to a monitor. You adjust somewhat and try not to be as precise and as descriptive of who has the puck now for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a little bit much for a non-hockey crowd, and two, you’re not really able to accomplish it and you recognize it going in it is an imperfect science, but the science stuff is not what the day is about. It’s about celebrating the sport outdoors where a lot of these guys, despite the fact that we’ve doing it 10 years, grew up playing.”

Q. Do you a favorite Winter Classic venue?

“The reason I like Fenway [Park], Michigan [Stadium] and Ralph Wilson [Stadium], was No. 1, it snowed at least either all day or part of the day; it was cold and all three games went to extra time. There are a lot of other reasons why I liked the three, but those are the three common grounds that they share. I like the fact that Michigan had the biggest crowd of all and is probably not going to be topped.”

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Q. The call on Sidney Crosby’s famous winner in the shootout — “The game on his stick…” — do you have those lines planned out ahead of time for big moments?

“The game on his stick,’ I’ve only used that twice and that was the second time and the last time I recall ever using it was that day. It was just one of those things that crossed my mind at the time.

“It was the first year out of the lockout, Crosby’s rookie year. Eddie Olczyk is coaching the Penguins and they’re playing the Flyers in the regular season. John Davidson and I are doing it for OLN, which later became Versus, which later became NBCSN. Sid gets his teeth knocked out in the first period by Derien Hatcher. Konstantin Koltsov cranks a shot in the warmup and it hits Jocelyn Thibault, the regular goaltender for the Penguins, in the throat so he can’t play. So this kid, Marc-Andre Fleury, is just there and he winds up being put in goal for the game and stands on his head and makes 40-some saves and it gets into overtime. There’s an outlet pass [and] Sid gets a breakaway from center ice on in and it just came “with the game on his stick.” I thought out of a dramatic game, a guy gets his teeth knocked out and here it is, his rookie year, and they’re underdogs playing in Philadelphia and this game could end here…

“We’re in the sixth shot of the shootout and this could be the last shot, so you take a chance because if Ryan Miller stops him, then we move on. But as it turned out, Sid scored on it so it’s remembered more for that. I can’t recall ever using it since.”

Q. You mentioned your favorite venues before. Do you have a favorite moment or goal from the games you’ve done?

“I guess the ones that ended of those three games because they drew to an ending of a chapter of a Winter Classic that was kind of marvelous. I think in terms of the fans, the game at Michigan Stadium was probably the most exciting from what was going on in the stands because you had 105,000 people and it was almost 50/50 because of all the Toronto fans that were in Canada, 20 or 30 miles away from Ann Arbor, and they got hold of the tickets. It was the blue and red throng there of 105,000, and so when one team scored it was about as loud as when the other team scored. That was an interesting dynamic… For drama, the most dramatic of the games would have been Crosby’s.

“We still haven’t had in the Winter Classic a shutout. So, who knows? Maybe we’ll see that this year.”

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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.

Edmonton Oilers: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Leon Draisaitl Art Ross Oilers surprises disappointments
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Edmonton Oilers.

We didn’t see Draisaitl’s peak in 2018-19

Last season, Leon Draisaitl adjusted what we believed to be his ceiling. It was already clear that he was a gem for Edmonton before, but a 50-goal, 105-point season? That was more than many projected.

And it wasn’t even the most he’s capable of. Draisaitl put himself in the Maurice Richard Trophy race with 43 goals in 2019-20, while he remarkably reached 110 points despite the season hitting that mid-March pause.

If you translate 110 points in 71 games to an 82-game season, Draisaitl would’ve reached 127-128.

The larger Hart Trophy debate can be a little thorny.

And it’s true that Draisaitl’s been living large on puck luck for two seasons now. He generated a 21.6 shooting percentage in 2018-19 and a 19.7 percent rate this season, while enjoying high on-ice shooting percentages too (12.4 in 2018-19, 14.4 in 2019-20, vs. 10.6 for his career). But it seems clear that he’s going to be a nightmare for defenses to deal with, whether he lines up with Connor McDavid or drives his own trio.

(Interestingly, evidence points to Edmonton being better off keeping their two mega-powers together.)

The Oilers dominating on special teams definitely ranks among surprises

With McDavid and Draisaitl on the roster, it’s not that surprising to see a dominant Oilers power play.

Granted, leading the league in PPG (59) with far and away the most efficient unit (29.5 percent, Boston second at 25.2) was a surprise. (After all, the Oilers managed a 21.17 rate in 2018-19, and was putrid at 14.76 at 2017-18.)

But the Oilers being so stingy on the penalty kill ended up being one of their biggest surprises. Edmonton tied with Columbus for the least power-play goals allowed (31) this season, while the Oilers’ 84.4 percent kill rate was second-best in the NHL. (For all that went wrong for the Sharks, theirs was the best at 85.7.)

Combining special teams percentages only tells you so much, but it’s a quick way to illustrate just how exemplary Edmonton’s units were. If you add that PP% (29.5) to that PK% (84.4), you get 113.9. The Bruins (109.4) and to a lesser extent Hurricanes (106.3) were the only other teams really in the Oilers’ ballpark.

McDavid + Draisaitl with semi-competent supporting cast members figures to be a formula for a strong power play most seasons. Maybe not “flirting with 30 percent” strong, but strong nonetheless.

Repeating such penalty kill success seems unlikely, however. Maybe Dave Tippett can manufacture at least a decent unit most seasons, though?

Oilers struggle enough at even strength to nearly negate positive surprises

One knock on Draisaitl’s Hart argument is that the Oilers give up almost as much as they create with him on the ice. The high-event back-and-forth is illustrated graphically by Draisaitl’s RAPM chart at Evolving Hockey:

Oilers surprises Draisaitl give and take

Even that vaunted power play drives home the risk-reward point. The Oilers allowed 10 shorthanded goals this season, tied for third-most in the NHL.

Despite Draisaitl enjoying an incredible season, McDavid being McDavid aside from an injury absence, and possibly unsustainable special teams dominance, the Oilers only managed a modest +8 goal differential in 2019-20.

What happens if Draisaitl cools off a bit, and they stop getting so many saves on the PK?

It’s foolish to fully dismiss any team with McDavid and Draisaitl on hand, particularly since the Oilers boast a few other helpful factors (including intriguing defensive prospects Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg). Still, those two carry such a burden, and the Oilers have enjoyed enough luck in certain areas, that one can’t help but wonder if disappointments will be more abundant than positive surprises in the near future.

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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.

Roundtable: Best NHL teams to not win Stanley Cup

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Which NHL franchise (team or one from a specific season) over the last 25 years are you most disappointed did not win a Stanley Cup and why?

JOEY: I know they made it to a Stanley Cup Final in 2016, but the fact that the Sharks have never hoisted the Stanley Cup is pretty disappointing. The other California teams (Anaheim and Los Angeles) have each won at least one, but the Sharks just couldn’t get over the hump.

How can you not feel sorry for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and company? Those guys played at a high level for so long and it’s unfortunate that they could never win it all.

Since the start of the 2000-01 season, this is where the Sharks have finished in the Pacific Division standings: first, fifth, first, second, second, first, first, first, first, second, third, second, fifth, third, third, third and second. That’s a lot of good seasons. To have only one Stanley Cup Final appearance to show for it is just brutal.

Even the Vegas Golden Knights, who have turned into a bitter rival for the Sharks, have made it to one Stanley Cup Final and that was in their first year of existence.

What’s even more frustrating for San Jose, is that based on what we’ve seen from them in 2019-20, it looks like their window to win is pretty much closed. Can general manager Doug Wilson turn things around quickly? Maybe. But they don’t even have their own first-round pick this year.

There’s been some great Sharks teams over the last 25 years, but they’d trade all that regular-season success for a single Stanley Cup.

SEAN: I agree with Joey. You can count on two hands how many in the last 15 years that the Sharks have been my preseason Cup winner pick. But I’m going to go in a different direction. The 2010-11 Canucks were a team that conquered demons along the way to reaching Game 7 of the Cup Final.

That Canucks roster was a total package. There were some likable characters (Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Roberto Luongo) and others who played the heel role very well (Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Max Lapierre, Raffi Torres). There was also Kevin Bieksa, who could probably find a place in both groups.

Years of playoff disappointment were carried like baggage heading into the 2010-11 season. After back-to-back Round 2 playoff exits at the hands of the Blackhawks, the Canucks were again Cup contenders, and needed to finally finish the job. They did their part initially, becoming the first team that season to clinch a playoff spot and picking up the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

Every Stanley Cup championship DVD has those flashpoint moments on the road to a title. The Canucks had that. From their regular season success to Burrows “slaying the dragon” with his overtime series clincher against Chicago in Round 1 to Bieksa ending the Western Conference Final against the Sharks in double OT to Vancouver winning the first two games of the Cup Final against the Bruins. It appeared as if the stars had finally aligned.

We know the rest of the story, but that team was both incredibly fun to watch with the talent on it and so easy to root against given the villains employed on the roster. All they needed was just one win in Boston to change history.

JAMES: Joey beat me to the Sharks, but honestly, I’m glad. In having to dig deeper, it conjured some great/tragic hockey memories and interesting thoughts.

For one: the last two Stanley Cup-winners emptied out metaphorical tonnage of angst. The Blues have been tormented by “almost” basically from day one, when they were pulverized in three straight Stanley Cup Final series (1967-68 through 1969-70) without winning a single game against the Canadiens or Bruins. There’d be ample angst if they didn’t win in 2019, and the same can be said for the Capitals. It’s difficult to cringe too hard at the Boudreau-era Capitals falling just short when Alex Ovechkin won it all, anyway.

My thoughts drift, then, to quite a few Canadian teams that rode high.

It’s tempting to go with the Peak Sedin Canucks, in and around that near-win in 2011; after all, while I didn’t grow up a Canucks fan, many were fooled into believing so because of my handle.

But, honestly, the team that might bum me out the most in recent years is the really, really good Senators teams that fell short of a Stanley Cup. (No, I’m not talking about the group that was within an overtime Game 7 OT goal of being willed to a SCF by Erik Karlsson and a few others.)

The 2005-06 Senators rank among the more galling “What if?” teams for me.

During the regular season, that Senators team scored more goals than anyone else (314) and allowed the third-fewest (211). Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson both enjoyed 103-point seasons, and Jason Spezza (90) probably would have hit 100+ if he played more than 68 games. This was a team that also featured Zdeno Chara, a Wade Redden effective enough to convince the Senators to choose Redden over Chara, and other talented players like Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette, and Mike Fisher.

The biggest “What if?” there revolves around Dominik Hasek getting injured during the 2006 Winter Olympics, a groin issue that kept him out of the ensuing postseason. Even at 41, Hasek was dominant, posting a .925 save percentage. Ray Emery couldn’t get it done, and the Senators were bounced in the second round.

While the 2006-07 Senators were the rendition that actually made it to the SCF, they no longer had Chara or Hasek on their roster.

Instead of a possible Stanley Cup victory, the memorable images of those peak Alfredsson-era Senators teams were ugly ones. Marian Hossa lying, dejected on the ice after Jeff Friesen beat Patrick Lalime and the Devils won a Game 7 in 2003. Alfredsson snapping at shooting a puck at Scott Niedermayer. And then plenty of unceremonious exits.

For more casual hockey fans, that Senators’ surge will probably be all but forgotten, but it’s really stunning just how talented that team was.

(Side note on almost-Canadian champs: I’ll likely go to my grave believing that Martin Gelinas scored that goal for the Flames.)

ADAM: I want to see great players get their championship, especially when it is the one thing that their otherwise great resume is lacking. The Sedins are obviously in that discussion, as are those great Sharks teams with Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski.

I will add another name to that list: Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Especially that 2013-14 team that actually made it to the Stanley Cup Final only to lose to the Kings. I know they lost that series in five games but I still feel like it was a lot closer than that because they literally lost three games in overtime. Lundqvist was outstanding in that entire postseason — and that series — and it would have been the capper on his career.

On one hand, I feel like Lundqvist is absolutely respected for the goalie that he has been. But it still seems like there is a “yeah, but…” that always follows him around because he doesn’t have that championship that will keep him from being remembered as one of the all-time greats at the position. He has been a great goalie, a sensational playoff goal, and was always taking the Rangers to levels that they probably shouldn’t have been at.

So which team am I disappointed didn’t win? At least one team with Henrik Lundqvist on it.

SCOTT: The 2018-19 Lightning were an elite team that not only didn’t reach the Cup Final, they didn’t even win a game in the postseason.

The Blue Jackets won their first playoff series as a franchise in stunning fashion as they won four straight against a big Cup favorite.

The Lightning were a victim of their own regular-season success. With 14 games remaining in the regular season, Tampa Bay secured a playoff spot and had little to play for the rest of the way.

“In the end, it’s just we just couldn’t find our game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the disappointing finish. “That was it. It had been with us all year, and for six days in April we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was a [heck] of a regular season.”

The Lightning won 62 games that season and finished the regular season with 128 points. The Bruins, who ended up representing the Eastern Conference in the 2019 Cup Final, finished with 107 points.

“You have a historic regular season doing what we did and have basically a historic playoff in defeat,” Jon Cooper said.

Tampa will always be one of the most successful teams to not win the ultimate prize.

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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.

Sharks GM gives Boughner ‘upper hand’ to take over as coach

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San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson isn’t ready to remove the interim head coach tag from Bob Boughner’s title yet.

Noting the Sharks’ season is not officially over with the NHL on hiatus due to the coronavirus, Wilson voiced his support by saying Boughner has the edge in taking over the job on a permanent basis.

“Does Bob know our group and have the upper hand in this process? Absolutely,” Wilson said during a conference call Thursday.

“But I think you have to be thorough in this process because we have the time and the opportunity,” he added. “And when you have time like this you need to utilize it.”

Wilson was pleased with the improved style of play and structure he saw in the Sharks in 37 games under Boughner, who took over after on Dec. 11.

Wilson, however, stressed there is plenty he wants to evaluate regarding a team that will likely miss the playoffs for only the second time in 16 seasons, and was last in the Western Conference when play stopped on March 12.

It’s unclear when play will resume, and whether the NHL will complete the final month of the regular season or go directly into the playoffs. The Sharks (29-36-5) went 14-20-3 under Boughner. The record was mostly a reflection of a rash of injuries sidelining San Jose’s top stars.

Wilson was more definitive in providing injury updates, saying and defenseman Erik Karlsson are on track to return next season.

Wilson said Hertl is ahead of schedule and can fully extend his left knee some two months after having surgery to repair two torn ligaments. He said Karlsson is nearly fully recovered after in February.

Wilson added forward Logan Couture is feeling no after affects after missing San Jose’s final game with a concussion caused when he was struck in the head by a puck.

Boughner spent his portion of the 40-minute session looking ahead to next season.

“Who knows what’s happening with the rest of the season here, but if we’re talking about training camp, that’s what excites me the most,” Boughner said.

“We’re going to treat training camp as crucial,” he added.

This is Boughner’s second stint with the Sharks. He spent two seasons as an assistant in San Jose before being hired to coach the Florida Panthers.

Fired last April after two seasons in Florida, Boughner was hired as an assistant to DeBoer’s staff.

“I think Boughy and his staff did a lot of good things and they were certainly hamstrung with a lot of our players out,” Wilson said.

Wilson also addressed the status of Joe Thornton, who is playing on a one-year contract and completing his 22nd NHL season, and 15th in San Jose.

“Everybody knows how we feel about Joe,” Wilson said, adding he has regular discussions with 40-year-old forward.

Wilson was non-committal when asked if there’s a place in next year’s lineup for Thornton, saying only: “He’s a special man.”

Looking at the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Edmonton Oilers

Record: 37-25-9 (71 games), second in the Pacific Division
Leading Scorer: Leon Draisaitl 110 points (43 goals and 67 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Angus Redmond and a 2022 conditional seventh-round pick from Anaheim for Joel Persson.
• Traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Tyler Ennis.
• Acquired Mike Green from the Detroit Red Wings for Kyle Brodziak and a 2020 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Traded Sam Gagner, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings for Andreas Athanasiou and Ryan Kuffner.

Season Overview: 

The Oilers are as top heavy as any team in the NHL. How top heavy? Well, the top two scorers in the league are on Edmonton’s roster. Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have combined to score over 200 points this season.

The Oilers have been rolling with these two guys for a while, but the new combination of general manager Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett have helped take the team to another level.

There aren’t many teams that got off to a better start than Edmonton did this year. They won their first five games and seven of their first eight. Obviously, they couldn’t keep that pace up, but they managed to stay within striking distance of top spot in the division thanks to their offensive capabilities.

Not only do they have those two top threats, they’ve also received solid contributions from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom, Zack Kassian and James Neal. Also, calling Kailer Yamamoto up from the minors was a game-changer for them.

The 21-year-old had 26 games of NHL experience before this season (he had one goal and four assists during that stretch). He’s suited up in 27 games this year and he’s found a way to collect an impressive 26 points. This youngster has given the Oilers another dangerous weapon in their arsenal. Even though they’re ranked 18th in goals against in 2019-20, they can make up for their with the attack.

Did Edmonton have enough to go all the way? Probably not. But when you have multiple superstars like McDavid and Draisaitl on your roster and you find some interesting supporting pieces you just never know.

Highlight of the Season:

Ironically enough, the most memorable moment of the season for Edmonton probably wasn’t a spectacular goal or an incredible offensive outburst.

The highlight everyone will remember most was the battles between Kassian and Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Oilers and Flames would go head-to-head in the first round. A seven-game series between these provincial rivals would’ve been must-see TV.

Hopefully we get to see that. For now, we’ll have to settle for this:

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.