Young scorers lead the way as NHL All-Star weekend arrives

By Josh Dubow (AP Sports Writer)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — It is only fitting that Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon are serving as captains for this weekend’s NHL All-Star game.

The three high-scoring forwards are 23 or younger. They are part of a youth movement that is taking over the NHL and will be on center stage when the league’s best players gather at the Shark Tank for their annual midseason celebration.

”It’s a young man’s league,” said Chicago forward Patrick Kane, now an elder statesman at age 30. ”These guys come in and maybe in the past your prime was 26, 27 or 28. Now your prime is maybe 22, 23 or 24. It’s definitely become a younger man’s game. A lot of teams these days are expecting their young draft picks and younger kids to come in and help the team right away. You’ll see more of these young guys get a chance.”

Scoring is on pace for its highest mark in more than two decades heading into the All-Star break, thanks in large part to some skilled youngsters who will be on display this weekend like the three All-Star captains along with the league’s leading scorer, 25-year-old Nikita Kucherov of Tampa Bay, and 25-year-old Calgary star Johnny Gaudreau.

None of the league’s top six scorers heading into the break has turned 26 and there are more All-Star skaters this weekend 22 and younger (11) than in their 30s (8). In all, 58 percent of the goals in the NHL this season have been scored by players 26 or younger.

”That’s just the way the game is trending,” Matthews said. ”It seems a lot younger now, a lot faster, more speed and more skill. A lot of younger guys are coming in and making an impact immediately. That wasn’t the case in years past but it’s kind of changing now. It’s pretty fun to see.”

The league had long been looking to increase scoring by reducing the size of goalie pads, among other rules changes, and it seems to have finally materialized. Teams head into the break averaging 3.03 goals per game, which is on pace for the highest-scoring season since the 3.14 in 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were still among the league’s biggest stars.

There’s still a long way to go to get back to the level of the go-go 1980s, which featured a single-season team average of 4.01 goals per game in 1981-82 – the highest in the league since the end of World War II.

But there has been an 18 percent increase in scoring since the post-expansion low of 2.57 goals per game for teams in 2003-04, before a lockout canceled the following season and led to rule changes.

”The game’s being run by the twentysomethings now,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. ”Players have a positive arrogance when they come into the league that they can do anything and they try it. That’s what makes them so good. They’re not sitting there saying this might not be the right thing to do in this situation. Players are trying it and that’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing with the skill level in this game. These players are so good.”

There was a big jump in the first year back in 2005-06 thanks to a crackdown on stick work and obstruction that led to more power plays. But scoring fell gradually in the ensuing years and was down to 2.67 three years ago before starting to rise again.

An influx of young stars like McDavid, Matthews, Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders and Vancouver rookie Elias Pettersson helped contribute to the 13 percent jump in scoring in a three-year span.

”I came in the league out of college and I was 22 or 23 and I was the youngest guy on the team,” Columbus 29-year-old forward Cam Atkinson said. ”Now it’s unheard of if you don’t have two or three guys under the age of 20. It’s great for the sport. It’s a fast game and that’s what the fans want.”

The surge hasn’t been limited to the youngsters. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 37 at age 33 and was slated to be the fourth captain this weekend before deciding to stay home and rest.

Hometown favorites Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks are also among the players posting big numbers this season. Burns leads all defensemen with 55 points, and Pavelski is tied for ninth with 27 goals, putting him on pace for a career-high 42 at age 34.

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

Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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How did they pull this off?

During most playoff years, we ask this of the players. And, no doubt about it, the Tampa Bay Lightning showed a lot of perseverance fighting through bubble life to win the Stanley Cup. Doing so while Steven Stamkos played three minutes qualifies as “How did they pull this off?” material.

But, in the case of the 2020 Stanley Cup being handed out following the playoffs, this time we’re talking about the NHL, and everyone involved in keeping the playoff bubble from bursting.

It’s still surreal that we got this far.

NBC’s own Doc Emrick narrated the unlikely journey that was the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which you can watch in the video above.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This unlikely journey took us from second training camps, play resuming on Aug. 1, and a field of 24 teams narrowing down to the Stanley Cup champion Lightning. As Emrick says, it felt like a dream, but it came true for the NHL, even if it happened amid a nightmarish time.

Time will tell when the 2020-21 season may begin, but either way, it will be tough to forget the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even if you’re not a Lightning fan.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

More on the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup

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.

Lightning had big Stanley Cup heroes beyond Conn Smythe winner Hedman

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If you’re like me, you’re prone to debate just about every Conn Smythe winner. That tradition continued with Victor Hedman winning the Conn Smythe as the Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup. And, as usual, you have to be a real nitpicker to actually get mad about Hedman winning it.

Because, again, Hedman ended up playing a huge role in the Lightning’s success, as the stupendous Swede has done for most of his already-impressive career.

Victor Hedman topped all Lighting players in ice time during their 2020 Stanley Cup run, and logged 25:01 time on ice (with an assist) in that clinching Game 6. Hedman flirted with a point-per-game (10 goals, 22 points in 25 games), a rare run for any skater, let alone a defenseman.

So you’re really splitting hairs by arguing against Hedman. With that, (powers up hair-slitting machine).

Other Lightning Conn Smythe possibilities after Hedman wins it

Brayden Point

TSN’s Frank Seravalli revealed that the Conn Smythe voting ended up being very close between Hedman and Brayden Point.

That’s like, “Two bad NFL wild-card teams who both probably shouldn’t make the playoffs, but one has to,” close.

Point scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on the power play in Game 6, yet another example of the small forwards oversized clutchness.

Point finished with a whopping 14 goals and 33 points in 23 playoff games. If his injury(injuries?) carried over from the Islanders series, it was tough to tell.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Interestingly, Point was killer on the power play against the Stars, but otherwise roasted opponents most at even-strength. He generated 26 out of his 33 points when everything was even. In other words, Point often scored points in the toughest situations.

If I were voting, it would have come down to Point and his partner in crime …

Nikita Kucherov

After leading the NHL regular season in scoring during the 2018-19 season, Kucherov topped all point producers during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kucherov grabbed an assist on that Point Cup-clincher, giving him 34 points in 25 games.

Much like Point, it was fair to wonder how healthy Kucherov was during this run. And it was unhealthy for opponents to wonder how much more damage a full-strength Kucherov might have managed.

(Splitting-hairs machine chimes in: that said, if you’re choosing between Point and Kucherov, Kucherov was more assist-heavy [7 G, 27 A]. He also leaned more on the power play than Point.)

( … Speaking of splitting, maybe Kucherov and Point split some votes?)

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Normally, when a goalie manages a .927 save percentage during a Stanley Cup run, that goalie is the talk of the town. Frankly, Vasilevskiy was on the tips of fewer tongues than Stars goalie Anton Khudobin for most (if not all) of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Granted, Khudobin presented a more entertaining underdog story.

Vasilevskiy is as close to “established” as a goalie can get in the modern NHL. He’s the rare contemporary first-rounder. Vasilevskiy boasts prototypical size, and carries the $9.5M cap hit that makes you merely expect great things.

Yet, if you followed goalies, you realize such performances are far from foregone conclusions.

Beyond winning a Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy pulled off one of the only things he hadn’t done during this run in Game 6: he earned a shutout. Otherwise, his run was almost completely spotless. During a postseason when teams leaned on both of their goalies to an unusual degree, Vasilevskiy played every minute for the Lightning. And they never stared into the brink of elimination during this entire run.

Conn Smythe voters couldn’t have been blamed for choosing Point, Kucherov, or Vasilevskiy, but Hedman was a fantastic choice, too. This rich list of potential winners underscores the Lightning’s daunting power, and is a quick reference as to how they won the Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos being limited to about three minutes of playing time.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

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.

Stamkos joins Lightning for Stanley Cup celebration

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After controlling Game 6 against the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Beyond repeat Stanley Cup champion Patrick Maroon, winning the Stanley Cup was a first for every Lightning player. Considering the road the Lightning traveled to this Stanley Cup victory, should it be surprising that they decided to mix up the celebration, and create a great moment with Steven Stamkos in the process?

As Gary Bettman noted, the Lightning chose to take that group Stanley Cup celebration photo before the trophy was raised.

In an emotional moment, Lightning captain Stamkos ended up on the ice, becoming the first Lightning player to raise the Stanley Cup, prompting a jubilant celebration from teammates. It all makes that lone goal from Game 3 even sweeter for Stamkos.

Great stuff.

Following Stamkos, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman got his chance to raise the Stanley Cup. Some veterans took their laps, while eventually Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and others celebrated with the Stanley Cup.

Along with the players, Jon Cooper and GM Julien BriseBois received a chance to bask in the glory. Both played big roles in the Lightning getting this far (as did former GM Steve Yzerman, now with the Red Wings).

Watch highlights of the Lightning’s 2-0 win against the Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the video below:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

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 successfully completes bubble Stanley Cup Playoffs

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It began 63 days ago and ended Monday night with a new NHL Stanley Cup champion.

When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s Return to Play plan in May, there was lots of skepticism that we would see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season. The plan was to start August 1 and finish the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in late September with bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. It was a big challenge, but worth the effort.

“I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution,” Bettman said in May.

When puck dropped on the Penguins-Flyers exhibition game July 28 from Scotiabank Arena, it was different. No crowd, piped in atmosphere, and plenty of uncertainty about how the following two months would go. But round after round confidence grew that this postseason would be completed without issue. Week after week the NHL announced their latest round of COVID-19 test results, and in total, 33,174 tests were given with not one returning positive.

Yet, Bettman held off on celebrating until it was his time to award the Cup to the winning team’s captain. He was able to do just that, posing for the annual photo at center ice inside Rogers Place — this year with Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. 

“To be in this place, at this time under these circumstances is remarkable and frankly, overwhelming,” Bettman said before awarding Victor Hedman with the Conn Smythe Trophy and presenting the Cup. “It’s a testament to everybody that participated in our Return to Play and it’s a testament to a great Stanley Cup Final from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.”

[Lightning needed to ‘feel failure’ before earning Cup success]

The on-ice celebration, like everything else in life since March, was different. There was no raucous crowd celebrating with the players; no media on the ice grabbing postgame soundbites. It was like it had been for the last two months: the Lightning, altogether, taking part in a post-Cup tradition under unique circumstances.

What hadn’t changed were the emotions of winning. This postseason was a grind on everyone involved. The Stars and Lightning have been away from their families and inside bubbles since July. Hotel rooms became their home away from home. Video games, FaceTime calls, and the occasional time outside were highlights of off days. The road to the Cup Final was different, but when the players gave their thumbs up to the Return to Play plan they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“I missed an anniversary, birthday, another one’s coming up, first day of school, hockey tournaments, my daughter making the swimming team, my other daughter going to her first dance class,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper last week. “Where do you want the list to go?”

“There won’t be one thing about bubble life I’m going to miss,” said Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness.

It’s over now. Six and a half months after the league and world paused, we finally have a 2019-20 NHL champion. The Lightning and Stars won’t ever forget this experience.

“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” said Hedman afterward. “But it’s all worth it now. We’re coming home with the Cup.”

MORE:
Bubble won’t be back for full 2020-21 NHL season
Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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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.