NHL tests puck and player tracking in regular-season games

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — On one screen live video was showing how many feet per second Erik Karlsson was skating. On another was a video-game-like visualization of the game on the ice below between Vegas and San Jose. Nearby screens flashed prop bets – where the next goal would be scored from? would Max Pacioretty skate 3 miles tonight? – as odds were updated by the second.

In a hallway high up in T-Mobile Arena, virtual reality headsets provided a view of the game from the perspective of anyone from Marc-Andre Fleury to Joe Thornton to a fan in section 214.

The NHL this week tested puck and player tracking for the first time in regular-season games, an exciting step with plans to have it place across the league next season. The NHL will join and perhaps surpass the NFL with real-time tracking technology it hopes will have broad ramifications for teams, players and fans from Florida to Vancouver.

An overwhelming amount of data will soon be available for analytics, broadcasters and, yes, gamblers as expanded sports betting takes hold following last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision clearing the way.

”It’s going to change the game in a big way,” said Dave Lehanski, NHL senior vice president of business development. ”We’re going to go from tracking or capturing maybe about 350 events per game now – shot, pass, hit, save – to 10,000. That alone at the end of the day, you’re going to have a massive amount of new data that no one has ever seen before.”

Microchips were added to player shoulder pads and fitted inside specially designed pucks for two Vegas Golden Knights home games this week, against the New York Rangers and the San Jose Sharks. Fourteen antennas in the rafters and four more at the suite level tracked movement through radio frequencies and relayed the data to suite 46, where league and Players’ Association executives and representatives from 20 teams and various technology firms, betting companies and TV rights holders were watching along with a handful of reporters.

Tracking was tested at previous All-Star games and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. The latest tests refined the logistics of using the technology in meaningful games, and also showed how the real-time statistics can be used on broadcasts, in betting applications and in creating virtual reality and augmented reality simulations.

”Technology gives us a chance to bring our fans closer to the game, gives them a chance to look at the game from different perspectives,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said as the Golden Knights battled the Sharks. ”And the opportunity is unlimited in an era where technology is developing at a record pace.”

Fans will get their first real taste of the tracking system at All-Star Weekend on Jan. 25-26 in San Jose when NBC in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada will have access to the data to use on their broadcasts. If all goes according to plan, the full range of puck and player tracking will be in place to begin next season.

The NHL and NHLPA have been discussing puck and player tracking for several years, and millions of dollars have been invested in the project. Player concerns over tracking data being used against them have been quelled enough that they agreed to wear the microchips.

”I do think the potential positives far outweigh any negatives,” said Mathieu Schneider, a retired defenseman and special assistant to the NHLPA executive director. ”It’s incumbent upon us to make sure we’re doing not only for the current guys what we can but for future guys. … I think the timing’s right.”

The NHL owns the data but must share it with the union. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the sides are on the same page and will talk about it more for the next collective bargaining agreement. One of the conditions is that teams are not allowed to use player tracking data in salary arbitration.

”Who knows what’s going to happen with it?” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”I think people like to see different stats, and the NHL’s probably trying to give fans a little bit of something like that. Maybe it affects some guys, maybe it doesn’t. Hopefully it only enhances players and their skills and how they play the game.”

The NHL will join the NFL as the only major North American sports leagues with players wearing tracking technology. The NBA and Major League Baseball use sophisticated systems that can include radar and cameras.

Jogmo World Corp. and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany developed this particular system in conjunction with the NHL over the past three years. It has taken that long just to get it right; the rubber used to make pucks originally didn’t work with the sensors. The system tracks a puck 2,000 times per second and players 200 times per second.

”Overall, hockey’s the most challenging sport that you can think of because the highest mechanics, the highest speed, the highest impact,” Jogmo founder and CEO Martin Bachmayer said. ”We had to change the puck recipe, the puck mixture to make that work. That was super difficult.”

The NHL won’t say how much, but the new pucks are considerably more expensive than the frozen rubber varieties used over the past 100-plus years of hockey and any fans who went home with a puck from one of the games unknowingly got a piece of history and a valuable souvenir. How referees handle them and how equipment managers deal with the microchips on the shoulder pads were major elements of the testing this week, and adjustments will be made based on feedback from players and officials before next season.

Starting next season, broadcasters will be able to flash up-to-the-second data during games, and at some point fans will be able to customize puck and player tracking stats as they watch online. The goal is to try to attract new viewers and give hardcore fans more to sink their teeth into.

”The casuals will use it as a way to understand just how fast (hockey is),” NHL chief administrative officer Steve McArdle said. ”All the things that they have heard about hockey will come to life through data right in real time. The avids, if they want to go super deep on the analytics that are going to be derived out of this thing, it’s a rabbit hole that you could go as deep as you want to go.”

It could also change the way the game itself is played. Teams already have their own proprietary data, and the influx of standardized numbers and information with pinpoint accuracy down to the inch will make analytics even more advanced.

”They want to have more information, so that really provides us with an opportunity to really make the clubs better and smarter,” NHL chief revenue officer Keith Wachtel said.

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.