Rangers, Sabres take advantage of Winter Classic distraction

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NEW YORK – Hockey players are creatures of habit. They need to be. When you’re practicing and playing games from mid-September until at least April it’s easy to settle into daily routines as that becomes your normal life.

But certain points of the season can drag and along the journey of an 82-game schedule comes points of boredom. Rink, bus, game, hotel, plane and repeat. Like anything, sometimes a season needs a jolt of electricity to bring some excitement to it.

Enter the Winter Classic.

The Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers have known this date was coming since the spring. It’s a nationally televised game on a big stage in New York over New Year’s. The all-access cameras have been following them around for a few weeks now and with the holidays just passing, it’s been a great time to spend with family.

On Sunday, both teams got to skate on the ice at Citi Field — first with their teammates during practice and then for an hour afterward with friends and family.

“We’ve been talking about this for the past few weeks and past few months. Families are in now so it’s almost like a little family trip,” said Sabres forward Jordan Nolan. “We were together [Saturday], we had a team meal. [Sunday night] there’s a team meal and guys are spending New Year’s together, guys are getting the families together. When you do an event like this it definitely brings a team a little bit closer. It’s a little bit special experience for everyone during the season, so it’s definitely needed for an 82-game schedule.”

“It’s a lot different,” added Evander Kane. “You kind of forget about the rest of the year.”

While there’s plenty of potential distractions for both teams leading up to the New Year’s Day game, they’re not all necessarily negative.

“You’re changing the normal routine here. I think as an organization, as coaches, that’s one thing that we try and do in an 82-game schedule at any given point is try to change a little bit, even though players are creatures of habit,” said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. “With this [Monday], everybody’s got tons of people that are going to watch, that are going to be here, they’re going to want to be at their best. Both teams are going to work real hard and it’s going to be a fine event.”

Both Rangers and Sabres players said on Sunday that while there’s plenty of fun to be had during an outdoor game experience, game day is a different story. They’ll wake up Monday morning and prepare like normal. All the excitement surrounding such an event goes away and it’s a matter of focusing on the two points at hand — points that mean different things to both teams at this point in the season.

For the Rangers, it’s two points toward clinching another playoff berth. For the Sabres, it’s two points that could get them moving in the right direction — a direction they’re feeling they’ve finally started to move toward.

“We’ve got to try and find positives and we have been playing well of late,” Kane said. “A game like this, a marquis game of the year, it’s something that we’re all looking forward to and now that it’s finally here we want to put ourselves in a position to win this game and get off on the right foot for the new year.”

More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
Sabres hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half
Rangers, Sabres prepared for cold, windy Winter Classic conditions
Kevin Shattenkirk looking to be more than ‘work in progress’ with Rangers
Old friends Lehner, Lundqvist ready to face off at Winter Classic

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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.

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream: NHL Return to Play round-robin game

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream
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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Saturday’s round-robin matchup between the Avalanche and Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be 2.

Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. The Golden Knights, even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), has scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period.

Marc-Andre Fleury is playing in his 14th consecutive postseason, the longest active streak among the top four major professional sports leagues. New Orleans Pelicans guard J.J. Redick has played in 13 straight postseasons; the Pelicans are currently attempting to reach the NBA Playoffs, which begin on August 17.

In Jared Bednar’s first season in charge just over three years ago, Colorado finished last in the NHL with just 48 points. Now they boast Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon, Calder Trophy finalist Cale Makar and an enviable goalie tandem in Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Colorado Avalanche vs. Vegas Golden Knights
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, August 8, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference round-robin schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, 3 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Lightning-Flyers, Avalanche-Golden Knights play for top seeds

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Jon Cooper wants to stop the conversation now: Steven Stamkos isn’t fit to play until he says so.

The coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning ruled out Stamkos for his team’s final round-robin game Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers (8 p.m. EDT, NBC) that will determine the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia won’t have top-line right winger Jakub Voracek, so neither team is at full strength.

”Injuries are unpredictable,” Cooper said of Stamkos. ”As of right now, he’s out indefinitely until he’s not. And I’ll be the person to let you know when that is. But you should know that he’s working his tail off and he’s eager to come back.”

The Lightning beat Washington and Boston without Stamkos and will again turn to Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy as their starting goaltender. Carter Hart starts for Philadelphia, which is also 2-0-0 in round-robin play and will have rookie Joel Farabee on the first line in place of Voracek.

Coach Alain Vigneault would only say Voracek isn’t available to play against Tampa Bay.

”Jake’s got a unique skillset: a veteran guy that’s been around and has played in some big games,” Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”We’ll welcome him when he comes back and in the meantime keep chugging forward with the guys we have.”

Cooper said the Lightning have been focusing on peaking for Game 1 of their first best-of-seven series, which will be next week. Vigneault’s Flyers have been attempting to balance between winning and tuning up for when their season is on the line.

Tampa Bay-Philadelphia will decide which team faces Montreal after the Canadiens knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.

”We know they got some top players that have a lot of skill and they got a really good power play,” Hart said of the Lightning

In the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights set the goal of earning the No. 1 seed from the first day of training camp last month. That will be on the line Saturday when they face off against Colorado (3 p.m., NBC). The Golden Knights are going hard for home ice in the West even though there are no fans and all games are being played in Edmonton.

”The higher the seed, the easier path you get,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”When I say easy path, you get the lowest-ranked opponent, you get last (line) change, you get the benefit sometimes of a home dressing room over a visitor dressing room. There’s small benefits to it. I like the fact that our group thinks it’s important and we’ve played that way and prepared that way.”

Vegas isn’t 100% healthy yet with winger Max Pacioretty still not ready to play. DeBoer continues to say Pacioretty is close, though he’ll have to quarantine in Edmonton and produce four negative coronavirus test results before being eligible to practice or play.

The Golden Knights came back from deficits to beat Dallas and St. Louis, and look like a buzzsaw no matter who’s in goal between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The Avalanche similarly have a two-headed goaltending monster in Phillip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, and coach Jared Bednar isn’t eager to tip his hand on which one he’ll go with in the next round.

The Avalanche are also healthy. Grubauer, Francouz, captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and star rookie defenseman Cale Makar all missed time with injuries during the season.

With the whole crew together, Colorado is undefeated in two round-robin games and living up to the expectations set internally to get the top seed.

”We want to try and get home ice,” Bednar said. ”It’s been a goal of ours and we want it and our guys are playing like they want it. I like the focus and the intensity from our group at this point. Hopefully it takes even another step here for Vegas so we know that we’re good to go coming out of it.”

Kraken hire Everett Fitzhugh as club’s first broadcaster

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken have hired Everett Fitzhugh as the club’s first broadcaster, the team announced Friday.

Fitzhugh is believed to be the first Black team broadcaster hired by an NHL franchise. He has spent the past five seasons as the director of media relations and broadcasting for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. Fitzhugh served as the play-by-play broadcaster for the club.

”As someone who’s worked in hockey for over a decade and who has a long-held passion for broadcasting hockey, to be named a part of the broadcast and content team for a brand-new NHL franchise – particularly one with an organization as strong as the Kraken – is a dream come true,” Fitzhugh said in a statement. ”Getting to the NHL has always been my goal.”

Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said Fitzhugh came highly recommended by those the team consulted with in making the hire. Fitzhugh’s exact role will be determined at a later date.

Fitzhugh was one of three front-office hires announced by the team. Seattle also hired Jonny Greco as the senior vice president of live entertainment and game presentation, and Lamont Buford will serve as vice president of game presentation.

The Wraparound: First Round seeding up for grabs Saturday

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your roundup of Friday’s wild postseason action.

• Friday was Elimination Day as the Oilers, Penguins, Predators, Panthers, and Wild all exited the postseason.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Golden Knights, 3 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream: Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be #2. Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. Even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), the Golden Knights have scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period. The Avs have been spreading the love on offense. Through two round robin games, each of Colorado’s six goals have been scored by a different player – two from defensemen (Cale Makar and Ryan Graves) and four from players in their first season with the Avalanche.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Round-robin: Flyers vs. Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestreamThe winner of this game will become the #1 seed in the East; the loser will be the second seed. Tampa, owner of the league’s best regular season offense (3.47 goals/game) has scored five goals in its first two games… and they’re without Steven Stamkos, who will not play against the Flyers after missing Tampa’s first two round robin games with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out indefinitely. Carter Hart, who will turn 22 on Thursday, is expected to start after Brian Elliott got the nod in Philly’s last game vs Washington. Hart stopped 34 of 35 shots in their 4-1 win vs Boston last Sunday in his postseason debut, becoming the youngest Flyers goalie to win a playoff game.

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

SUNDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN