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Atmosphere on display as Islanders return to Nassau Coliseum

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The New York Islanders knew what to expect. As the players and staff drove home from Saturday morning’s skate at their practice facility not far from Nassau Coliseum, they saw fans already in the arena parking lot tailgating, preparing for the team’s return to the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike.

When the players hit the ice for warmups, the noise inside the building rose in a mostly-packed arena with Let’s Go Islanders chants belted out like the old days.

When Casey Cizikas broke a 2-2 tie 7:09 into the third period, completely erasing a 2-0 lead the Columbus Blue Jackets once had, the deafening roar of the Coliseum crowd evoked memories of the team’s 43-year run before moving to Barclays Center in 2015.

“It’s fun playing hockey when you go out there like that and there’s that energy, there’s that momentum,” said Islanders captain Anders Lee. “We knew it was going to be special.”

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Back for the first of 21 games this season, the Islanders returned to Long Island and to the Coliseum Saturday night. As part of a split schedule, the team is calling two arenas home this season.

Barclays Center has been since their rink since the 2015-16 season, but in an effort to find a permanent solution in “Islanders Country,” the team’s new ownership won the bid to build an arena near Belmont Park race track, which is set to open in time for the 2021-22 NHL season. While they wait, the team will play 61 of its home games over the next three seasons at the Coliseum, which has undergone a $165M renovation.

The Islanders have been back at the Coliseum since moving to Barclays, but the two preseason games couldn’t come close to the atmosphere that was inside the building during a memorable comeback win. 

There was a different energy inside, one that’s impossible to replicate at Barclays Center. The Islanders were back and supplied an another memory for the 13,917 in attendance to take away following a trip back to what was once dubbed “Fort Neverlose.”

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It had been 1,316 days between meaningful Islanders games at the Coliseum. Cal Clutterbuck’s empty-net goal to seal Game 6 against the Washington Capitals in the first-round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs was the final one in the building before the move. 

The head coach on the other bench that game was Barry Trotz. He saw first-hand how the atmosphere provided by the fans in the Coliseum affected the players, which is why he started the line of Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, three of nine players who were on the ice that night against the Capitals. The trio brought their physical edge to the game’s opening shift, with both the fans and players feeding off each other’s energy.

Cizikas’ involvement was evident all night, and it was fitting that it was his goal that stood as the game winner and completed the comeback.

“I had a lot of emotions running through my body,” he said afterward. “I was more tired from screaming on the celebration than I was from the actual shift.”

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Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella has coached a lot of games at the Coliseum, but none were more memorable than the ones he was involved with while coaching the New York Rangers. The division rivals are known for their spirited meetings that see the on-ice emotions spill over into the crowd.

“The things that were going on in the stands, it was better than the game sometimes,” Tortorella said. “When other teams come in here, they don’t experience that. That Ranger-Islander game, no matter what building — MSG or here — they’re a blast to play in. It’s when hockey was hockey. The stuff going on in the stands was just incredible.”

Tortorella and the Blue Jackets played in the original final regular season game at the Coliseum in April 2015, but there were no tears shed or final goodbyes given at the end of that game as the Islanders still had a playoff matchup against the Capitals awaiting them. The head coach was glad to be back three years later.

“This building has seen some tremendous games and some tremendous players have played in here,” he said. “I’m glad we’re the first team doing it with them because I do think when they’re charged up, the crowd’s charged up, I think it helps the visiting team, too.”

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From the pre-game tailgating to the Let’s Go Islanders car honks in the parking lot to the YES YES YES chants to the appearances of franchise legends Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom and Ed Westfall, it was a nostalgic return on an emotional night. The players couldn’t stop talking about the atmosphere afterward, praising the fans and speaking glowingly about being able to be back on that Coliseum ice.

Martin is the second-longest tenured Islander behind Josh Bailey with 452 of his 584 career games coming with New York. He made his NHL debut on the Coliseum ice in 2010 and quickly made himself a fan favorite. It was a difficult decision for the franchise to watch him leave for Toronto, but when it was clear the Maple Leafs were looking to move him over the summer, it was pretty easy to see where he’d find a perfect fit and be welcomed back with open arms.

Being able to start Saturday’s night game and feed off the vibe in the arena was something Martin won’t forget.

“It’s a rambunctious group. It’s awesome,” said Martin. “They’re so fun to play in front of. … It’s the best building I’ve ever played in.”

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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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.