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Ice melting to slush in Vegas heat at Stanley Cup Final

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — After just one game, it’s already clear this Stanley Cup Final is on thin ice. Thin, patchy, slushy, rut-riddled ice.

The Vegas Golden Knights have shocked the sporting world by playing for a championship in their inaugural season. But their incredible playoff run has taken them straight into summer in the Mojave Desert, where temperatures routinely soar past 100 degrees from May to October.

With sizzling heat outside and a frenzied sellout crowd inside, T-Mobile Arena’s ice melted into an inconsistent playing surface for the Golden Knights and the Washington Capitals in the series opener.

Despite constant sprucing from attendants during timeouts, both teams chased the puck through dozens of weird bounces and unpredictable slides while Vegas rallied for a 6-4 victory.

”It was pretty bad,” Washington forward Jay Beagle said. ”It’s so hot outside, so it’s not like it’s a surprise.”

And it’s about to get worse: The mercury on the Strip could hit triple digits Wednesday for Game 2, when the league is likely to see its hottest outdoor temperature ever recorded at a Final game.

But before any Canadians develop heatstroke at the prospect of their national game being played in a Nevada swimming pool, players on both teams were eager to make it clear the Vegas ice is absolutely playable.

”It’s the same for both teams, which is why it doesn’t matter,” Vegas forward James Neal said. ”It’s still the same game for everybody. Of course, everybody would like to play on perfect ice, but that doesn’t happen at this time of year.”

Middling ice quality can be a fact of life year-round in NHL rinks, particularly for the Sun Belt teams from Anaheim to Miami, yet their players still thrive. It’s common to see ice deterioration in rinks at various latitudes when temperatures rise while the NHL playoffs roll through spring.

The Capitals are well aware they won’t skate onto a pristine Nordic pond when they return to Capital One Arena for Game 3 on Saturday – not with 85-degree temperatures and 70-percent humidity in the Washington forecast.

”It’s probably the time of the year where it’s pretty hard to keep the ice fresh,” Washington forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said. ”But both teams play on the same ice.”

Both coaches used the Vegas ice quality to emphasize points in their game plan that would probably be important on any surface. Washington’s Barry Trotz and Vegas’ Gerard Gallant want a north-south approach with crisp passes, minimal puck-handling and no turnovers.

It’s all easier said than done when the puck refuses to behave.

”The pucks were bouncing pretty good,” Trotz said. ”Unfortunately, the ice wasn’t great. There was a lot of chaos.”

Dan Craig, the NHL official responsible for masterminding and maintaining the temporary ice sheets at outdoor games across the continent, has been working on the Vegas ice with the in-house crew. The sheet only went down one day before the series opener because T-Mobile had a Pink concert booked Saturday night – again, something that happens in playoff rinks all the time.

Gallant hopes the ice will be more consistent after two more days to set up. Most of the Capitals reported better conditions during practice at T-Mobile on Tuesday – although the arena also wasn’t filled with more than 18,575 screaming, sweating people.

”I don’t know if it was the empty building or – just like everything – it needs to cure a bit, but I thought it was really good (at practice),” Trotz said. ”So hopefully, that will help both teams.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

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• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Cale Makar’s memorable NHL debut

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This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

Just two days after finishing his college season at UMass, Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar scored his first career NHL goal, on his first shot, in his debut in Game 3. In becoming the first defenseman to ever score a goal while making his NHL debut in the postseason, Makar factored in Colorado’s 6-2 victory and two-games-to-one series lead.

Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro called the game action from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Wednesday, May 27 on NBCSN
#HockeyAtHome: Meet & Greet – 4 p.m. ET
Men in Blazers On Ice – 4:30 p.m. ET
• Flames vs. Avalanche (2019 Western Conference Round 1, Game 3) – 5 p.m. ET

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: MEET & GREET – WEDS., 4 P.M. ET
NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen co-hosts a 30-minute program that features Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel and Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators meeting fans and answering their questions virtually during the league’s hiatus.

MEN IN BLAZERS ON ICE – WEDS., 4:30 P.M. ET
Roger Bennett, co-host of “Men in Blazers,” hosts an interview series featuring stars from around the NHL. Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews headline this episode.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

KHL hopes to start 2020-21 season on Sept. 2

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The Kontinental Hockey League says it plans to return on Sept. 2 to open the 2020-21 season.

The last KHL game was played on March 12. The season was then suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The KHL is widely considered to be the strongest hockey league outside the NHL. It ended its 2019-20 season partway through the playoffs without declaring a champion.

The league says Sept. 2 is a preliminary date that could be subject to “necessary corrections” depending on how the coronavirus situation develops.

International travel restrictions became a problem for KHL teams. The league has teams in six countries but most are in Russia.

The projected Sept. 2 start date is broadly in line with other recent KHL seasons.

Sharks look for rebound following rough 2019-20 season

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The San Jose Sharks had started planning for next season long before the news became official Tuesday that they would be one of the seven teams left home if the NHL resumes its season.

A slow start, a rough December and an injury-plagued final stretch of the season left last season’s Western Conference runners up at the bottom of the conference standings.

”We didn’t get off to a good start. We were chasing our tail,” general manager Doug Wilson said Tuesday. ”October we were awful, November we were one of the best teams in the league record wise anyhow and December we were awful. That’s where the frustration really got elevated. We are capable of playing some good hockey. Were we a great team? No, we probably weren’t a complete team. But we knew we were better than we were playing, and that frustration, that’s OK. It’s now how we channel that, what our focus is, what we do this offseason.”

This marks just the second time in the past 16 seasons that the Sharks failed to make the postseason. They responded the last time by making the only run to the Stanley Cup Final in franchise history in 2015-16 before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.

Wilson is hopeful for a repeat even though this season’s team struggled as top players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns had down seasons, goalie Martin Jones struggled and young players like Kevin Labanc failed to develop as anticipated.

”We did not meet our expectations this year,” Wilson said. ”But I do know this, we’ve got some really good players that care a lot. That’s how I look at it. Every year is a different year, a different team. We do not take missing the playoffs lightly. We’re not a team that’s going to go into this long protracted rebuild.”

COACH THEM UP

The poor start led to the firing of coach Peter DeBoer in December. Assistant Bob Boughner took over on interim basis and the team showed signs of playing with better structure under his leadership. Wilson said he hasn’t made a decision on Boughner’s status but praised the work he did.

”It’s a process that’s ongoing,” Wilson said. ”Very difficult to come in and coach a team halfway through the year. You don’t necessarily have all the ingredients and your staff that you want around you.”

GETTING HEALTHY

The Sharks dealt with some bad injury look during the season with Karlsson, captain Logan Couture and star forward Tomas Hertl all missing significant time. Wilson said all three are healing well and should be able to be in top shape whenever next season starts. That will be especially helpful for Karlsson, who spent last summer recovering from a groin injury, contributing to the slow start this season.

”This is the one benefit that he’s going to have,” Wilson said. ”He’s going to have all the time now to get healthy and to get that elite level of fitness the great players have and that he’s been able to have in the past. This extra time for him will be very beneficial.”

JUMBO’S STATUS

One question for the Sharks before next season starts will be the status of Joe Thornton. The Sharks brought Thornton back this season on a one-year deal and he finished with seven goals and 24 assists in 70 games. His production increased as the season went on as he had 11 points in his final 17 games after just 20 in his first 53. Thornton has expressed interest in returning at age 41 for his 23rd year. Wilson said he is in frequent contact with Thornton and knows he cant wait to get back on the ice.

FREE AGENCY

The Sharks have most of their key players other than Thornton under contract for next season. Depth forwards Melker Karlsson and Stefan Noesen are eligible to be unrestricted free agents, along with defenseman Tim Heed and backup goalie Aaron Dell. But with significant money tied up in Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on defense, as well as forwards Couture, Evander Kane and Timo Meier, the Sharks will have little flexibility unless they trade one of those high-priced stars.

DRAFT DOINGS

The Sharks won’t have the benefit of a high draft pick following a down season because they traded their first-round pick to Ottawa before the 2018-19 season for Karlsson. San Jose did acquire Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in a deadline deal for forward Barclay Goodrow and also has two second-rounders. Those picks could be used either for prospects or packaged in deals for veterans who can contribute even quicker.

Plenty to figure out before NHL decides on hub cities

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Whenever the NHL is able to finish out the 2019-20 season, the games will be played in two “hub” cities which will host each conference.

The league is still investigating the cities they’ll use, which will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

“We’re going to go to the places that in terms of the logistics, the health issue I talked about, the testing issue I talked about, the governmental issues we talked about, we’re not hung up on east‑west,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman on a video conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “For TV scheduling it may be better if we’re in different time zones, but we’re going to go to the places that we think are the safest and make the most sense medically at the time.”

As the NHL revealed on Tuesday, 10 cities are in the mix.

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[NHL announces return-to-play plans]

The Canadian government currently has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the country. That could affect Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver’s chances to host.

“The interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room, we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub city,” said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We’re faced with having to find a solution to that. Hopefully we can.”

All of those markets, outside of LA, feature a team in the Return to Play plan. Bettman said that there is a chance a team could move to the other “hub” city if their location is one of the chosen two. For example, if Vegas and Columbus are selected, the Western Conference will play in Columbus and the Eastern Conference would play their games in Vegas.

But it’s never that easy. Logistics may require a team to play in its home city, but it won’t be as advantageous as it usually is.

“[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said. “They’ll be staying in the same conditions that everybody else is.”

What comes next is to move into Phase 2 next week with players holding on- and off-ice training in small groups at team facilities. That could include players from different teams who live in the same city.

“This is a little bit different dynamic,” said Daly, “so we felt like it was important at the request of the NHL Players’ Association to make it available, but it will come down to the individual club specifics as to whether they can really accommodate those players on any real basis.”

If all goes well Phase 3, teams entering formal training camps, will get under way in July. That could set up the 24-team return in August, perhaps?

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
An overview of the Western Conference series
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds

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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.