Races heat up between Penguins, Flyers, Blue Jackets

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The Philadelphia Flyers could have sulked after a poor performance from Petr Mrazek – again – halfway through Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.

Instead, they just wouldn’t roll over, putting forth the sort of gutsy effort you’d expect from a team playing in front of Alex Lyon. (Yes, there were bad puns.)

The Flyers rallied from deficits of 3-1 and 4-3 to grab a standings point in this one, with a memorable 4-4 tally coming when Travis Konecny notched his 20th of 2017-18 in an odd way. The Flyers ended up falling in the shootout as the Red Wings’ 5-4 SO win ended a lengthy skid, but that single point ended up being huge on a busy night in the Metropolitan Division.

Consider some of the other developments around a division that’s felt up for grabs for a while:

  • In slipping by the Dallas Stars 4-3 in regulation, the Capitals might make the division title a little bit less than “up for grabs.” They now lead the Metro by four points with 91 in 73 games played. Alex Ovechkin scored his 44th goal of the season in this one, moving all alone to 19th all-time in goals, as that was the 602nd of his career.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins squandered an opportunity to stay within striking distance of the Capitals for first place, and also a chance to create separation between themselves and the hard-charging Blue Jackets and tenacious Flyers. The Islanders handed the Penguins a 4-1 loss.
  • Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets must be considered a serious threat to the Penguins’ second seed, and at least a dark horse candidate to win the Metro.

In defeating the Rangers 5-3, the Blue Jackets are now on a ridiculous nine-game winning streak. Artemi Panarin‘s quietly impressive 2017-18 season was a little tougher to ignore tonight, as he combined a hat trick with an assist.

This win and the Penguins’ loss locks the two teams at 87 points. Pittsburgh has a game in hand (73 GP) on Columbus (74) and some other edges, but that race is now very close.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

  • Columbus pushed Philadelphia down into the first wild-card spot thanks to Tuesday’s proceedings, but again, getting a point was still huge for Philly. They now have 86 points in 74 games played. That could be crucial in holding off the Devils and Panthers to at least secure a playoff spot. They’re also conceivably a hot streak away from pushing back into the Metro top three, and possibly grabbing a round of home-ice advantage if things go really well.

Need a visual look at the races? Here’s a rundown:

METRO 1: Capitals, 91 points, 73 GP, 39 ROW
METRO 2: Penguins, 87 points, 73 GP, 39 ROW
METRO 3: CBJ, 87 points, 74 GP, 35 ROW

WILD1: Flyers, 86 points, 74 GP, 35 ROW
WILD2: Devils, 82 points, 72 GP, 32 ROW

Ninth place: Panthers, 7-2 win against the Senators tonight, 81 points, 71 GP, 34 ROW

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As you can see, the races for the second and third Metro spots, along with jostling for the two wild-card seeds, makes for a congested group. The Panthers hold three games in hand on the Flyers and the Devils have two on Philly, so the current buffer could plummet.

Sure, winning the game would have been better for the Flyers, especially if they could have done it in regulation or during overtime. Considering how glum things looked heading into the second intermission, grabbing a point against Detroit was still important.

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.

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.