AP/CP Survey: 48 percent of NHLPA reps favor playoff change

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Hockey players are conditioned to think that winning the Stanley Cup means going through the best teams to be the best team.

That doesn’t mean they are blind to some of the inequalities of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format. An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams shows that almost half favor changing the format – and most of those support going back to seeding the Eastern and Western conferences 1 through 8, the structure that was used from 1994-2013.

This is the sixth playoffs where each division’s top three teams and a wild card are bracketed together with no reseeding by round. A year ago, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second in the league in points and met in the second round. The same thing happened with Washington and Pittsburgh in 2017.

”It’s kind of tough the fact that a lot of good teams are going out first or second rounds,” Columbus defenseman David Savard said. ”I think maybe we need to look back at maybe 1 against 8 and play that format.”

Savard was among 15 player representatives (48.4%) who said the divisional format should be changed. Seven (22.6%) others said it should stay the same and the other nine (29%) were noncommittal. The players were surveyed March 7-April 4, before the playoff matchups for this year were fully set.

The NHL went to back to a divisional structure similar to what it used from 1982-93 in large part to create or revive rivalries. Toronto and Boston are going to a Game 7 in the first round for the second consecutive year, while the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs three times in a row with each series going at least six games.

”I think it’s good for the rivalries,” said New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider, who supports the current format. ”I think it’s good for the teams seeing each other year after year. You can cry what’s fair or not fair, the two best teams meeting in the second round, but it’s going to be great hockey one way or another. I think that’s the best part about the playoffs is that it’s a two-month gladiator event where everyone just beats the crap out of each other.”

Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay losing in the first round to eighth-seeded Columbus is more of a Lightning problem than a format problem. If the Lightning had gotten past the Blue Jackets, a potential second-round series against the Bruins would have guaranteed to knock out one of the top three teams in the league before the conference finals.

Travel is the biggest concern among players when it comes to a playoff format, and it’s much more of an issue in the spread-out West. Grouping by divisions is designed to limit those issues, but the wild-card system means a team like Nashville could face a team from California, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round if it lines up that way.

”The biggest issue is probably the travel for the Western Conference,” said Predators defenseman Yannick Weber, who did not indicate a preference either way for changing the format. ”If we have to go to California for each round and Eastern teams have a little bit of an easier schedule, I think that’s the only downside from it.”

The most equitable format is seeding playoff teams 1 through 16, which the NHL tried in 1981 and 1982. The potential for cross-continent travel in each round is the biggest impediment to making that leap.

The Southern Professional Hockey League has tested a ”challenge round” format where the top three seeds in each conference get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 5-8. Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle suggested that for the NHL in a recent interview with Sportsnet in Canada.

A pick-your-opponent format would create plenty of bulletin-board material for lower-seeded teams. But in a sport where matchup advantages, injuries and momentum matter more than the results of an 82-game regular season, it could silence complaints that the current format devalues everything from October through March.

”It almost gets to a point that the regular season doesn’t really mean anything because you see those divisions, there’s such a big difference between them,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. ”If you have to cross over and now you’re facing an easier division because you’re a wild card, doesn’t seem to be fair for me. The whole regular season needs to have a bigger effect on the playoffs.”

That’s where the argument comes in that the NHL should move to a play-in system like baseball, perhaps where the Nos. 7 and 10 seeds and Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference play once to see who gets in. That would theoretically give more of a boost to the top two teams in the East and West.

But this format is locked in through at least next season.

Colorado’s Ian Cole, who played twice in the recent Penguins-Capitals playoff trilogy, supports the division rivalry format because it’s doing what it intended: generate interest.

”We were actually talking about it the other day in the locker room: As much as you’d like to see one through eight or one through 16, then you’re having Calgary playing Florida, for instance, in the first round,” Cole said. ”Does that move the needle, as opposed to Boston versus Montreal, which certainly does move the needle?

”I think there was some good thought behind it and yeah, sure, there are going to be some divisions stronger than others. Some teams are going to get left out because of that or get in because of that. It’s one of those things that this is the current format and we work with it the best we can.”

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

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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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 Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
Getty Images
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.