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Ekman-Larsson poised to lead Coyotes into the future

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson knew the desert was where he wanted to stay, yet consulted with former Coyotes captain Shane Doan before signing a long-term extension.

Doan had been in similar situations before, debating whether to stay in the only place he had ever played or head off someplace else for more money or a better chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

Doan kept true to the Coyotes throughout his career, spending his entire 21-year career with the same franchise, yet didn’t try to sway his former teammate one way or another during a 20-minute call.

”I just asked how he looked at when he was playing, so that helped me a lot,” Ekman-Larsson said. ”It was really nice to have a guy who had been in the same situation a little bit. He didn’t say what I was going to do. You should just do what’s best for you and what you’re feeling comfortable with. After that phone call, it felt great to agree on the long term.”

The long term was an eight-year contract extension signed last week that will pay Ekman-Larsson an average of $8.25 million per year. The 26-year-old Swede may have been able to command more money on the open market when his current contract expires after the 2018-19 season, but dollar signs were not what he was after.

Stability, comfortable surroundings and a hope for the future was what Ekman-Larsson sought. The Coyotes are the only team he’s played for and they have a roster filled with up-and-coming players, so it was the only natural fit in his mind.

”It’s only money. It’s not going to make you happier, so the money situation was never a problem,” Ekman-Larsson said. ”I didn’t even think about it. I’m just happy to be a part of this team and this community and the future.”

Since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Coyotes have regressed, becoming one of the NHL’s worst teams. They’ve been in rebuilding mode since that run but appear to be on the road to becoming a playoff-contending team again with a slew of moves and draft picks by general manager John Chayka.

Locking up Ekman-Larsson for the long term keeps a key, veteran piece to the puzzle in place, providing the Coyotes with leadership and rarely matched skill from the blue line.

”It’s a huge moment for our entire organization. Our fans should be proud, our ownership should be proud, our staff and everyone involved,” Chayka said after Ekman-Larsson’s signing. ”A superstar-caliber player has the option to go to maybe any of the 31 teams and felt the loyalty and felt the belief enough in what we’re doing to sign on long term. He’s a leader on and off the ice and a special person, a special player.”

Since being taken with the sixth overall pick of the 2009 NHL draft, Ekman-Larsson has established himself as one of the NHL’s most skilled defensemen. He has eclipsed 20 goals twice during eight NHL seasons and is annually among the league leaders in assists by a defenseman, finishing with at least 19 each of the past seven seasons.

Ekman-Larsson got the 2017-18 season off to a slow start, with eight goals and 22 assists the first four months while posting the league’s worst plus/minus rating.

The start came with extenuating circumstances.

Not only was he playing in a new system for a new coach in Rick Tocchet, Ekman-Larsson was still trying to come to grips with the death of his mother, Annika. She battled cancer for 10 years before succumbing and he missed the final three games of the 2016-17 season to be with his family. The weight of her death carried into the start of the 2017-18 season.

”Obviously, losing your mom is something I will have to live with the rest of my life,” he said. ”It’s not going to take one year, it’s not going to take 10 years, it’s something I’m going to have with me until I die. There’s days that you feel better about it and there’s days where you’re feeling sad about it, so it’s up and down a little bit. It’s OK to be that way, but at the same time it helps to do what I love doing, being around my teammates and great people. That’s something I really appreciate.”

Ekman-Larsson played better at the end of last season as he understood Tocchet’s system more, finishing with 14 goals and 28 assists while playing all 82 games. He expects the comfort level to increase for the upcoming season – and beyond, now that he has a long-term contract in place.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Maple Leafs force Game 5, stay alive thanks to unbelievable comeback

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were four minutes away from being completely buried.

Four minutes away from having the longest offseason this core of players had ever had to deal with in terms of criticism and scrutiny.

Four minutes away from maybe dealing with the possibility of major changes coming to a team that — to this point — has been unable to get over the hump in the postseason.

That is when the madness started.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just 24 hours after blowing a three-goal lead to lose in overtime, the Maple Leafs flipped the script and erased a three-goal deficit with four minutes to play in regulation to force overtime. It was there that they completed one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history when Auston Matthews scored a power play to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win.

And with that, everything comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday for the right to advance to the field of 16 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It really cannot be understated as to how insane all of this was, and the perfect confluence of events that needed to happen for Toronto to win this game.

For 56 minutes the Maple Leafs were unable to solve Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and when Boone Jenner scored with under seven minutes to play in the third period to give his team a three-goal lead everything seemed over in Toronto.

But with Frederik Andersen pulled for the extra attacker, Toronto started to chip away.

William Nylander started the comeback with 3:57 to play when he scored a goal that — at the time — seemed to be pointless window dressing.

When Mitch Marner scored less than a minute later to cut the deficit to one, things really started to get interesting.

Even then Toronto needed some extra help to go its way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Game 3 hero for Columbus, had an opportunity to put the game away with an empty-net sitting in front of him, only to have his shot hit the outside of the net. Just a few moments later, Gustav Nyquist failed to gain the red line with the puck when he could have taken a shot at another empty net and gave the puck away, giving Toronto another chance.

The Maple Leafs did not waste the chance. With just 23 seconds to play in regulation Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Matthews scored midway through the period, capitalizing on a Nick Foligno tripping penalty.

During their late third period comeback Toronto had the same combination of players on the ice: Matthews, Nylander, Marner, John Tavares, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

With that, Toronto now has a chance to salvage what could have been a disastrous postseason appearance. And who knows, if they lose Game 5 on Sunday all of the things mentioned up at the top (the criticism, the scrutiny, the potential changes) could still happen. This is, after all, a team that is supposed to compete for a Stanley Cup. Losing in the play-in round after three straight Round 1 exits would be awful for the perception of this core. But this win gives them a chance to fight another day and change the narrative around this team. If they do manage to do that and go on a postseason run from here, those four minutes are going be talked about for years.

As for Columbus, well, this has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.

They had this game — and the series — all but won. If you go buy the win probability stat, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning this game with five minutes to play. All they had to do was avoid a meltdown, and they would have been a giant slayer for the second year in a row. But the meltdown happened.

The Blue Jackets were never supposed to be in this position this season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency, and then dealing with a season-long run of injuries. No one would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they badly regressed or fell off the map. If they are unable to bounce back in Game 5 on Sunday this is going to be the game that will be impossible for them to shake. It was right there. They had it.

Now it all comes down to Sunday.

Honestly, it is the perfect game — and perfect series — for unpredictable mayhem that the 2019-20 season has been.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 [OT] (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 [OT]
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canucks-Wild stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Canucks-Wild stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Canucks and Wild. Coverage begins at 10:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Wild Game 4 stream at 10:45 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shut out in Game 1, Vancouver responded with a 4-3 win over Minnesota in Game 2 and followed that up with a 3-0 victory in Game 3 on Thursday. Now the Canucks will look to win on back-to-back days and clinch their first playoff series win since 2011, when they made it to the Cup Final.

“Our players need to gain experience in these type of games, but we’re not just here to get experience,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “We want to win the games.”

Minnesota missed the playoffs last season and is now in danger of losing in the opening round of the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, August 7, 10:45 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Chris Cuthbert, Louie DeBrusk
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Wild live look-in stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN leads 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Blackhawks eliminate Oilers to continue wave of Game 4 upsets

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The Oilers put up a good fight with their season on the line in Game 4, but the way it ended was still quite embarrassing as the Blackhawks advanced with a 3-2 win. With that, the 12th-seed Blackhawks advance to the First Round via a 3-1 series win.

For the most part, the Oilers avoided the sort of stinker of an effort to end their season that, say, the Penguins were guilty of. Yet, with the way things ended, the Oilers still ended their season with frustration and embarrassment.

With their season on the line, the Oilers were whistled for a too many men on the ice penalty with 2:02 left in the third period. Edmonton had been pushing Chicago pretty hard to try to tie what was a 3-2 game, but that became a tougher task when emptying the net merely made the final moments even-strength.

Ouch.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Toews, Kubalik, Crawford make it happen for Blackhawks vs. Oilers in Game 4

To start the series, Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik outgunned Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the Oilers. They repeated some of that magic in Game 4, including Toews setting up Kubalik for the game and series-clinching goal.

Game 4 of Blackhawks – Oilers started wildly enough that it seemed like this would be another one of those video-game-style scoring fests. Connor McDavid set up Josh Archibald for a 1-0 goal just 45 seconds into Game 4, and it was 2-2 mere minutes in the second period.

Consider a big mistake averted the possible turning point.

Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat took an egregious boarding penalty when he hit Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear. Edmonton would get a major power-play opportunity for the trouble, but couldn’t cash in. That happened in part because Darnell Nurse took a penalty during that opportunity, yet it was still the sort of moment you highlight if the game ended up being close.

And it was largely up to Corey Crawford to turn a Game 4 of trading haymakers into something the Blackhawks could manage.

Crawford finished Game 4 with 41 saves, including all 18 during a frantic third period. While goaltending was a mess for the Oilers whether it was Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen in net during this series, Crawford stood tall at key times for Chicago.

Now all the Oilers have going for them is second-guessing moments like squandering that major power play. Oh, and hearing a lot of NHL Draft Lottery jokes between now and Monday’s drawing.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI wins series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 2

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers in league’s Return to Play

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It’s time to focus on the NHL games, including the 2020 NHL playoffs schedule. The 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers began on Saturday, Aug. 1 in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto.

The top four teams in both conference will play a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The Stanley Cup Qualifiers will be best-of-5 series with the losing teams being entered into Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery.

Below is a full 2020 NHL playoffs schedule of both the round-robin and the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

EASTERN CONFERENCE (Scotiabank Arena)

Round-robin [Standings, scenarios]

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
:
Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8:
Flyers vs. Lightning,  8 p.m. ET – NBC
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canadiens 2, Penguins 0 (recap)

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers (CAR won series 3-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders 5, Panthers 1 (recap)

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (CBJ leads series 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT) (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 9 p.m. ET – (live look-in coverage on NBCSN)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, TBD *if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WESTERN CONFERENCE (Rogers Place)

Round-robin [Standings, scenarios]

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
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, TBD

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 2 (recap)

(6) Nashville Predators vs. (11) Arizona Coyotes (ARZ won series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Coyotes 4, Predators 3 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Predators 4, Coyotes 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Coyotes 4, Predators 1 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Coyotes 4, Predators 3 (OT) (recap)

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN leads series 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks, TBD *if necessary

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (CGY won series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames 4, Jets 0 (recap)

————

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.