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More afternoon games could boost NHL popularity in Europe

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Aleksander Barkov is quick to point out the NHL is so popular in Finland that tickets to two games in Helsinki sold out in less than five minutes.

”It shows how much they love the game,” the Florida Panthers captain said. ”There’s good reason to do that every year.”

The NHL is planning just that after Commissioner Gary Bettman announced initial plans for a 2019 season-opener in Prague, two regular-season games in Stockholm and exhibitions in Germany and Switzerland. The Panthers and Winnipeg Jets played the 24th and 25th regular-season games outside North America on Thursday and Friday at a packed Hartwall Arena in the Finnish capital.

As the league sows seeds of interest in new markets like China, it is also continuing to cultivate interest in established hockey countries like Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. And there’s a modest proposal for continuing to stoke the interest in the sport in Scandinavia and across Europe.

”One thing that I know former players have been talking about is maybe more games earlier on the weekends so they can actually watch,” said Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, who is Swedish. ”Prime time here is middle of the night there. To make it more popular in Europe and Sweden, I think more games in the middle of the day on the weekends would be great. That’s how you can get it more popular.”

A crowded sports calendar in the U.S. with the NFL and college football going on during the first half of the season makes that a challenge. Not counting the three games this season taking place in Europe, just 127 regular-season NHL games – roughly 10 percent of the full schedule – start early enough in North America that fans in places in Western and Central Europe can watch before a late evening bedtime.

Even with games on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights to fill prime-time spots in the U.S., traditional Sunday afternoon kickoffs have helped the NFL become bigger in Europe. Games at Wembley Stadium in London feature fans in jerseys of just about every team, not just the two playing, and the influence goes beyond England.

”In Denmark, the NFL (became) quite popular like 10, 15 years ago because they started games in the afternoon, so people could start watching at dinner time and they could just keep watching a new game,” Capitals center Lars Eller said. ”I would welcome more afternoon games.”

The ”NHL on NBC” games that start at 12:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday largely after the American football season ends fit that bill. And with more teams choosing to skip morning skates altogether, afternoon starts wouldn’t throw off game-day routines to the point that there’s pushback from players.

”Whenever that happens, games at 12 or 1 p.m. Eastern time, it’s like 7 o’clock in Finland or (nighttime) in Europe, so people can see,” Barkov said. ”Of course there’s a big audience there.”

Bettman said he is not sure hockey can grow more in places like Sweden and Finland where there are already strong domestic leagues and a steady flow of talented players reaching the NHL.

”What we need to do is continue to work to keep it at the extraordinarily high level that it’s at,” he said.

Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly brushed aside the idea of basing an NHL team in Europe, saying it would need to be a group of teams and that no one has come up with a viable plan. They said staging an outdoor game in Europe is a possibility but not something likely to happen soon.

More likely is a regular schedule of ”Global Series” games across Europe. Since the NHL opened the 1997-98 season in Japan, 24 of 31 teams have played overseas. The Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Dallas Stars, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Vegas Golden Knights and defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals are the only ones left. Probably not for long.

”We’re happy to share our game,” Bettman said in Helsinki. ”We’d like to continue to encourage the enthusiasm, support and development that hockey gets by bringing the world’s best players and the world’s best league over here.”

Associated Press Writer Karel Janicek in Helsinki contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Nikita Kucherov’s postseason defined by redemption, consistency

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Like pretty much every other player on the Lightning roster, the 2018-19 playoffs ended up being a very forgettable experience for Nikita Kucherov.

During their four-game loss to the Blue Jackets, Kucherov managed just two points (both in their Game 4 loss), zero goals, and even missed a game due to a suspension for an ugly hit late in their Game 2 loss. It was a dreadfully disappointing end to a season where Kucherov had put together one of the finest regular season performances of the modern era for a record-setting team. He finished the season with 128 points (the most points the league had seen in 23 years) and took home the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the players) on a team that won 62 regular season games.

But because of their inability to win even a single playoff against the No. 8 seed, it will mostly end up being a footnote to the season.

All of them — from Kucherov on down the roster — had to redeem themselves this postseason and flip the script on a team that was starting to become more known more for postseason shortcomings instead of for what it actually is — one of the league’s elite teams, driven by some of the best players in the world.

Entering Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), Kucherov and the Lightning are in the process of getting that redemption.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

They hold a 2-1 series lead and have looked like the far superior team these past two games.

Kucherov has been at the center of most of it.

His playmaking was on display in the Lightning’s Game 2 win by setting up a pair of power play goals to help power their fast start. In Game 3, he pounced on a Miro Heiskanen turnover in the neutral zone and buried a quick shot behind Anton Khudobin on a breakaway to help open the floodgates in a 5-2 win.

For the playoffs, he is already up to 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) in 22 games, which is currently tied for the fourth highest total in a single postseason over the past 20 years, trailing only Evgeni Malkin (36) and Sidney Crosby (31) in 2008-09, and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov (32) in 2017-18.

It’s not just that he is generating points that stands out.

He is driving the most dominant line in the league this postseason alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. His underlying numbers are also off the charts. Of the 98 skaters that have logged at least 200 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this postseason, Kucherov ranks second in total shot attempt share (63.6 percent), second in goals for percentage (76 percent), second in expected goals percentage (68 percent), fifth in scoring chance share, and second in high-danger scoring chances (67.9 percent). In most of those categories the only players that rank ahead of him are either Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman, or Palat, who is one of Kucherov’s current linemates.

Then we get to the consistency aspect of this, and just how steady his overall production has been.

There is no more overrated and overused word in hockey than “consistency,” at least as it relates to goal and point production. Every player in the league is inconsistent to a certain degree, and even the best players tend to score their goals and points in bunches. The season is a mountain range full of peaks and valleys. But Kucherov, for a few months now, has been residing on one of those mountains.

[Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

He has not gone more than two consecutive games without a point since the middle of January, and there was only one stretch of games this entire season where he went more than two games without finding the scoresheet — and even that was only a three-game stretch.

He also has eight multi-point games this postseason, and when you exclude the three Round-Robin games before the start of the playoffs that means he has recorded at least two points in more than 40 percent of his games this postseason.

That is a stunning level of production and dominance.

Just looking at recent Conn Smythe Trophy winners, Ryan O'Reilly had multiple points in only 20 percent of his postseason games for the Blues last season. Alex Ovechkin was at 33 percent in 2018. Sidney Crosby had multiple points in 33 percent (2016-17) and 20 percent (2015-16) in his most recent Conn Smythe seasons.

The Lightning have been one of the league’s best teams and Kucherov has been one of the best players for six years now. But because of the way their postseasons have ended there has always been that “yeah, but…” following them around, especially after last year’s dismal First Round showing.

They all needed to rewrite the story around themselves.

They are not exactly where they want to be just yet (they still have two more wins to get), but they have put themselves in a great position to finally accomplish their ultimate goal.

MORE: Conn Smythe Watch: Victor Hedman makes his move

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.

Trade: Penguins send Hornqvist to Panthers for Matheson, Sceviour

Trade Penguins Panthers Hornqvist Matheson
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After more than 24 hours of waiting, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers finally completed the rumored swap of forward Patric Hornqvist and defenseman Mike Matheson.

The trade breaks down as follows:

Penguins get: Matheson and forward Colton Sceviour

Panthers get: Hornqvist.

There is no salary retained in the trade, meaning the Penguins are actually taking on about $700,000 in salary for this season.

Hornqvist’s contract pays him $5.3 million per season through the end of the 2022-23 season.

Matheson, meanwhile, is under contract for six more seasons at a salary cap hit of $4.875 million. Sceviour’s deal has one more year remaining at a salary cap hit of $1.2 million.

The hold-up on the trade on Wednesday reportedly revolved around insurance on Hornqvist’s contract, as well as needing his approval for the deal due to his no-trade clause.

Breaking it all down

For the Penguins, it’s a pretty massive shakeup to the roster as Hornqvist had been one of their most fiery leaders and was a major contributor to two Stanley Cup winning teams. He was their most tireless worke, their most consistent high-energy guy, and as good of a net-front presence as there is in hockey. But he is also going to be 34 years old next season, and given his physically demanding style of play there comes a risk of him starting to decline and breakdown a bit. Given his salary cap number and the Penguins’ tight cap situation it is not a surprise that he was a candidate to be moved. Especially given the team’s desire to apparently shake things up after a second straight disappointing postseason exit.

This move does not save them any money, but it does help them achieve one of their stated offseason goals of getting younger and faster, two things that Matheson definitely brings to the table.

But he also creates a bit of a log-jam on defense where the Penguins already have a ton of money committed to the likes of Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, and Jack Johnson. John Marino will also be due a raise after next season.

It seems likely that another move is coming at some point this offseason. This is already their third trade of the offseason.

The question for Florida is how much quality hockey Hornqvist still has remaining. He is the type of player that a perpetually disappointing team would look to acquire to change the culture of their roster. He will certainly bring effort and energy to the team, but it will still come down to what he can deliver on the ice.

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.

 

Marc-Andre Fleury wants to stay in Vegas, isn’t asking for trade

Fleury trade
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The biggest question for the Vegas Golden Knights this offseason is going to be how they handle their suddenly complex goaltending situation.

Marc-Andre Fleury, the face of the franchise, remains under contract for two more seasons, while the team seems determined to try and re-sign Robin Lehner, who had taken over the starting job during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs after he was acquired at the NHL trade deadline.

While keeping both players would seem to be an ideal set-up (having two goalies capable of being a high level starter is a good thing!) the financial and logistical circumstances around it would seem to be incredible difficult.

Not only would it require a substantial salary cap commitment to a position where only one player can play at a time, there is also the delicate balance of playing time. Both goalies are starters, both will want to start, and both have earned the right to start. That has resulted in speculation that the Golden Knights could trade, or perhaps even buy out, Fleury this offseason.

There was also the school of thought that Fleury might ask for an exit given the way the goaltending situation unfolded this postseason.

That does not seem to be the case.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fleury told The Athletic’s Jesse Granger this week that while he realizes the potential of a trade, he has no intention of asking the team for one this offseason and that he is still committed to finishing his career in Vegas.

Even if it means potentially sharing the net.

Via the Athletic (subscription required):

“I want to stay in Vegas,” he told The Athletic Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ve loved every moment since I got here.”

Fleury emphasized that he is not seeking a trade, and if it were up to him he would finish his career in Vegas.

“This team means a lot to me, and the city has been so good to me,” Fleury said. “The fans, and (owner Bill Foley) have been so awesome. It’s a great team, and I thought when I came here that maybe I could retire here. I wanted to end my career here.”

Fleury added that he gets along great with Lehner, and that while his goal is to not be just a backup, he said he intends to “practice hard, try to play well, and hopefully get some games.”

The problem here is if Vegas is successful in re-signing Lehner it would probably carry a price tag similar to Fleury’s. That would mean Vegas would have somewhere in the neighborhood of $14-15 million tied up in net. The only team in the league this season that is slated to spend that much on goaltending is Montreal with the newly formed Carey PriceJake Allen duo.

Montreal has the salary cap space to make that sort of a commitment to the goalie position.  Vegas, on the other hand, may not. Not unless it makes a drastic cut somewhere else on the roster.

Even though the Golden Knights do not have any other significant free agents to deal with, they still have a handful of RFA’s to re-sign and are already crunched against the cap. Even if were to shed salary elsewhere to keep both goalies it would still probably prohibit the team from making any other outside addition via trade or free agency. It is a very good team, one of the very best in the league, but they are still going to want to make some improvements to the roster. That may be difficult, if not impossible, with both goalies on the roster.

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.