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One brave move could improve Capitals

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“Reliably good” might not be the sexiest descriptor in sports, but when an NHL team finds a goalie who delivers such results, they should count their lucky stars. Few goalies beyond Henrik Lundqvist have fit that bill quite like Braden Holtby over recent years.

Still, just about every goalie goes through a crisis of confidence; even Lundqvist hasn’t been immune to questions surrounding certain stretches of play. Holtby was already struggling this season – he came into last night’s game with exactly a 3.00 GAA, a number startling by both its symmetry and its worrisome nature – and only saw it worsen, allowing three goals in just two periods in Washington’s loss to Anaheim.

It can’t be good to see your team literally double the opposition in shots on goal, yet lose 4-0.

The good news, but also the challenge, is that the Capitals have another option in net, and Philipp Grubauer appears to be a pretty excellent one in that. Rather than fighting it, the Caps should give him a real chance to prove himself, and possibly profit off of that ambition.

He didn’t have to do much against the Ducks on Tuesday, stopping all eight shots in relief of Holtby, but that appearance served as a reminder that he’s been quite effective when called upon. That goes for 2017-18 (a sparkling .922 save percentage in 25 appearances) and his career in general (a slightly better .923 save percentage in 91 games). Holtby, meanwhile, saw his 2017-18 save percentage dip to a worrying .907.

As Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post reports, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz & Co. seem to know that they might need to pivot, at least for a while.

“I think just like anything, we’ll make that decision based on that he’s played a lot of games and won a lot of games,” Trotz said. “So because he’s No. 1 doesn’t mean you don’t go with Grubi for a bit just so [Holtby] can settle his game. We’ll sit down with [goaltending coach Scott Murray] just to see what the best thing for the long haul is.”

So, that’s a bit of hedging, which is totally fair. Allow me to lay out a few reasons why the Capitals should embrace Grubauer as a real threat to Holtby, even if it’s only for the next month or so.

Motivation plus freshness

There’s little doubt that Braden Holtby is a highly motivated athlete.

Since 2014-15, Holtby leads all goalies in games played (250), wins (160), and shutouts (21) while maintaining an excellent .920 save percentage. Still, you wonder if that workload might be weighing on him a bit. That’s especially plausible after the last two seasons, when he might have blamed himself at least in part for the Capitals falling heartbreakingly short of a Stanley Cup despite dominant regular seasons.

While Holtby’s $6.1 million cap hit runs through 2019-20, Grubauer’s $1.5M expires after this season, making him a pending RFA.

At 26, Grubauer must be chomping at the bit to get an extended opportunity to show what he can do … and yes, earn himself some money.

If the Capitals are worried about a “Here we go again” mentality, would a goalie who’s only enjoyed 95 games played spread out over six seasons give them a fresh outlook? From a scouting perspective, there’d likely be a lot more “tape” on a guy like Holtby (355 regular season games, 59 playoff appearances) than Grubauer.

Painful firsthand experiences

If nothing else, the Caps have seen how far a team can go while “riding the hot hand.”

Matt Murray is an immediate example, and he might stand as a template for how the Caps could handle things if Grubauer managed to take Washington far. Maybe they’d roll with Holtby and Grubauer for a bit before making a move? Murray helped the Penguins beat the Caps during the 2016 postseason, while injuries and a red-hot Marc-Andre Fleury flipped the script.

The most extreme example goes to the days before Holtby and Trotz.

During the 2010 postseason, the Canadiens went on an unlikely run with Jaroslav Halak, who only allowed three goals during the final three games of that memorable first-round series despite facing a ridiculous 134 shots on goal.

Despite that run, the Habs then had the courage to choose Carey Price over Halak during the ensuing off-season. These examples could show Washington that there’d be multiple routes if they give Grubauer an extended look, rather than giving him a very short leash.

What could have been?

Look, Holtby’s earned the right to be “the guy” in Washington’s net.

That said, the Capitals are already plagued by “What if?” questions. The Capitals won the last two Presidents Trophies, and also snagged one in 2009-10, yet they still lack a Stanley Cup ring. This franchise needs to turn over every stone to try to get Alex Ovechkin that elusive ring, even if it means ruffling some feathers.

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.

Sabres’ Okposo has surgery to repair right knee injury

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo had surgery to repair a right knee injury, leaving him plenty of time to recover during the team’s extended break.

The team on Friday announced Okposo had surgery this week, and is expected to miss up to six weeks.

The Sabres are off indefinitely after being one of seven teams to not qualify for the NHL’s proposed 24-team return-to-play format. The start of next season is expected to be pushed back, and may not open until January because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Okposo had surgery a week after the remainder of the Sabres season was canceled.

He was sidelined twice last season because of upper- and lower-body injuries that led to him missing 16 games. The 13-year veteran finished with nine goals and 10 assist for 19 points in 52 games, while playing mostly on Buffalo’s checking line.

PHT reviews hockey video games: ‘Super Blood Hockey,’ a gory good time

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Every week, PHT will spotlight hockey video games you might not have heard of. Previously, that meant looking back at games that are now largely inaccessible. This week’s edition, on the other hand, can be found in many spots: “Super Blood Hockey.”

As we look back at old and very old arcade-style hockey games, it’s almost inevitable to wallow in the sadder elements of nostalgia. Why can’t current games capture those good old days?

Well, games like “Super Blood Hockey” aim to do just that. After spending some time with the Switch version of the game, I think solo developer Loren Lemcke’s aim ended up being mostly on.

“Super Blood Hockey” is an evolution (and devolution) of NES “Ice Hockey”

Earlier in this series, we looked at the NES classic “Ice Hockey,” which originally released around 1988. Thanks to the Nintendo Switch’s SNES emulator (available with Switch Online), you can toggle between “Ice Hockey” and “Super Blood Hockey” on the same device.

Of course, it really might come down to letting your kids play “Ice Hockey,” but not “Super Blood Hockey.”

On one hand, SBH carries a lot of the same spirit of that Nintendo classic. There are “fat, skinny, normal” players, with the skinnier being more elusive, and the “fat” being tougher to knock off the puck than vintage Eric Lindros. Much like “Ice Hockey,” “Super Blood Hockey” only involves four skaters and a goalie, rather than the NHL standard.

Fights definitely play a role in the game, as much like in classic titles, the team that wins a fight — actually a wild line brawl — goes up one player. In fact, as I learned earlier today in researching the game a bit more, you can also go up four skaters to one.

A meaty and gory franchise mode

The not-so-family friendly stuff boils down to the gore, and the dark gallows humor of the franchise mode.

Rather than a dry GM mode setup such as games like “NHL 20,” you begin the “Super Blood Hockey” version by … giving up a kidney to afford your team?

Super Blood Hockey screen kidney
via Super Blood Hockey

When you lose a fight, you don’t just essentially go on the penalty kill. You also risk being “down a man” in a dark way. Like, say, losing your best player “Ryan Bretzel.”

Super Blood Hockey poor Bretzel
via Super Blood Hockey

The game’s lack of an NHL or NHLPA license means that you get some fun names (Adam “Pates,” huh?) and the game can go down some literal dark alleys with drug use.

 

When it comes to the humor, your results will vary. As someone who worries that players might be put at risk to return to play, there’s some catharsis in the satire of “Super Blood Hockey,” though. The tone generally works for me, possibly thanks to the throwback pixel art.

Super Blood Hockey discard
Players are inmates in this dark franchise mode. (via Super Blood Hockey)

In a May 2019 interview with Nintendojo, “Super Blood Hockey” developer Loren Lemcke explained the tone of the game:

The omnipresent evil of profit-motive haunts the US Healthcare system and poisons our compassion by injecting into us the necessary machinery to dehumanize others. One doesn’t have to dig very deep to discover a terrifying crypt of nightmarish and surreal ordeals inflicted upon the sick and dying in the name of profit. Super Blood Hockey is a mere cartoonish effigy of the very real kafkaesque horrors levied upon the poor.

(How many other sports video game franchise modes inspire use of the term “kafkaesque?” OK, beyond the microtransactions in the NBA2K series.)

Ultimately, “Super Blood Hockey” follows its retro roots as being a fairly stripped-down game. You won’t play 20+ seasons in this franchise mode, seeing Connor McDavid and Jack Hughes retire along the way.

Yet there’s a lot to like. I’m not sure how much of a difference it really makes when I tell my little pixely players to rest vs. hit the gym, but it’s fun to tweak their stats.

An impressive effort could be just a bit better with more resources

If you follow indie video games, you realize that small teams, sometimes basically one person, can sometimes will a game into existence. Sometimes that comes down to making the types of games that don’t get made any longer.

People craved another “Harvest Moon” game, so largely solo developer Eric Barone accomplished his own take on the series with “Stardew Valley.” That game became a smash hit, and Lemcke’s enjoyed his own success while making “Super Blood Hockey” an evolution and devolution of NES “Ice Hockey.”

Now, sure, there are beefs.

Above all else, it would be wonderful to be able to play games online. What better way to keep in touch with friends than to take advantage of their teams being down 4-on-2 thanks to lost fights?

And, while I’d argue that the game plays well, there can be some maddening moments. Sometimes it’s just flat-out frustrating trying to score against Pong-inspired goalies.

SBH stats
Bretzel’s sacrifice? Yeah, kind of in vain. (via Super Blood Hockey)

But with a fantastic retro soundtrack and look, and some fun gameplay, “Super Blood Hockey” could be a nice fit for those wanting an old-school hockey game. It’s often pretty cheap and on many platforms, from the Nintendo Switch to PC, to XBox One and Playstation 4.

As far as what’s next for Lemcke, well, I might need to check out his other project. If you’re of a certain age, you also have fond memories of the “Rampage” arcade games. It looks like Lemcke shared such memories, because check out “Terror of Hemasaurus.”

That looks like it might be worthy of its own movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to be honest.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

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 hub cities for NHL’s Return to Play

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Which two potential hub cities would be the best options for the NHL?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’m going to rule out Canadian cities because … frankly, Canada is (broadly speaking) taking a more cautious approach. That’s positive for the greater good, but not those who want to hand out a 2020 Stanley Cup. That said, if the NHL was willing to comply with 14-day quarantines and the like, that would be a different ballgame.

But I’ll go with two cities in the U.S. to try to be more realistic.

My choices:
• Las Vegas, NV
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

Look, you’re not going to find “perfect” options. But, after looking at the CDC’s listings for states/jurisdictions with the least and most infections, Nevada and Minnesota seem like decent bets. Of course, a lot can change in a few weeks, which is the timeline Gary Bettman discussed while pondering potential “hub cities.”

Personally, I’d be weighing safety far and away more than other factors, which is why I leaned (tentatively or not) toward Las Vegas and Minneapolis/St. Paul. In all honesty, the low infection rates of places like North Dakota make me wonder if ND really does rank among the best options. But oh well?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably repeat it some more: the NHL’s going to really need to show some finesse in threading the needle of actually pulling this off.

[Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I agree with James on the Canadian options. Given the current government mandates, if the NHL wants these two hub cities decided on in the next few weeks, I can’t see Edmonton, Vancouver or Toronto having the time to appease the league’s desires.

The one clear front-runner is Vegas, for obvious reasons. Hotel capacity, transportation, rinks, low COVID-19 case rates. The Nevada summer heat is one worry I have, which will give Dan Craig and his team plenty of work to do to ensure the sheets are up-to-par.

Columbus or Pittsburgh would make sense if you want that East/West mix for TV. If the schedule is going to be something similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, the Columbus/Pittsburgh side would start their games at noon ET and we’d have hockey all day with the Vegas games ending the night.

Both have key factors in their corner: multiple ice sheets, hotel proximity, and have been flattening the curve when it comes to COVID-19 cases.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: From the outside, it would seem the top considerations for hub city destinations are the COVID-19 conditions, and whether the infrastructure is sufficient to execute a tournament of this scope. The former is a variable that involves expert opinion and decision making, so I won’t attempt to weigh the cities based on that. The latter is something the league had time to evaluate before it announced the 10 candidates, so one would assume that all the “finalists” meet whatever minimum standard is required to host.

My initial thought from the very beginning was that Las Vegas should be a lock, and the details of what that might look like were described in a recent report from The Athletic. Vegas seems uniquely equipped to create the most controlled environment for these purposes. That’s got my first vote.

With that in mind, my second hub city choice is Pittsburgh, for a few reasons:

First, geographical balance is important considering that, at least at the very beginning, there figure to be several games per day across the two sites. This Olympic-style format would work best on TV if there were staggered start times to accommodate audiences in every time zone. That rules out Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Second, it’s unclear to what extent the US-Canada border situation will influence the final decision, but given where things stand at this exact moment, it seems more practical to have both sites in the US. That rules out Edmonton and Toronto.

That leaves Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pittsburgh. I’ve got no good reason for picking Pittsburgh except: why not give a carrot to the team that has to go up against Carey Price (who was the overwhelming choice for best goalie in this year’s NHLPA Player Poll) and the Montreal Canadiens (who effectively had a zero percent chance of making the playoffs when the season paused)?

There you have it. Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. The Marc-Andre Fleury bowl.

MORE:
NHL announces return-to-play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

Russia hires Bragin as men’s national hockey team coach

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia hired Valery Bragin as coach of the men’s national hockey team on Friday as it gears up to defend its Olympic title in 2022.

Bragin moves up from his longtime role in charge of the Russian under-20 team, which he led to the silver medal at this year’s world junior championships.

The Russian Hockey Federation didn’t say for how long Bragin’s contract runs. Bragin said his main aim was to prepare the team for next year’s world championships with a focus on players from outside the NHL.

Bragin replaces former Toronto Maple Leafs player Alexei Kudashov, who moves into a consultant role with the national team after 11 months as head coach.

Bragin also takes over from Kudashov as head coach of club team SKA St. Petersburg, whose operations are tightly intertwined with those of the national team. Roman Rotenberg is the general manager for both teams and holds vice president roles in both the club and the federation.

Rotenberg said in a statement that Kudashov “cannot currently put his full focus on coaching work.” He did not elaborate further.

Three-time Stanley Cup champion Igor Larionov replaces Bragin in charge of the junior team.

Russia’s players won the men’s hockey gold medal at the 2018 Olympics under the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” name after the country was officially barred from the games for doping offenses.