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My Favorite Goal: McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers and personalities remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Sean Leahy remembers Darren McCarty’s highlight-reel goal in Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final.

Gary Thorne’s voice was clueing us all in that we were in the middle of witnessing something special.

“McCarty draws … McCarty in … McCarty SCORRRRRESSSS! … A magnificent goal … Darren McCarty!”

It was a Detroit Red Wings goal you would expect to see out of someone like Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov. But Darren McCarty? He could score you a goal, sure, but his hands were typically reserved for pummeling the faces of opponents, not dangling rookie defensemen.

The rookie defensmen in question? Janne Niinimaa of the Philadelphia Flyers — the poor soul who is forever on the wrong side of McCarty’s highlight-reel goal during Game 4 of the 1997 Stanley Cup Final.

McCarty act of magic put the Red Wings up 2-0 late in the second period, giving them a cushion in what would be the final game of the series. It ended up as the knockout punch as the Detroit would complete a sweep and win its eighth Cup in franchise history and first since 1955.

I watched that goal completely in awe of what McCarty had pulled off. It’s was unexpected and unforgettable. This Red Wings team had Yzerman and Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan and Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Great, smart hockey players with endless skill. McCarty, a future member of the famed “Grind Line,” had his role. But like previous tough guys the franchise had employed — Bob Probert, Joe Kocur — he could put the puck in the back of the net as well as he could use his fists.

That’s why it’s my favorite hockey goal. An unlikely source delivers an unbelievable memory on the biggest stage.

This is the first edition of “My Favorite Goal,” a season-long series where NBC Sports writers and NHL players tell the stories of the goals that mean the most to them. They’re not necessarily the best goals ever seen, but ones that have left a lasting impression.

Today, we start with McCarty and the story behind the move that still resonates 22 years later.

So how did a 25-year-old bottom-six forward pull off that move? You have to travel to Sweden to find the origins of it becoming part of McCarty’s hockey legacy.

***

The Red Wings saw their playoff runs in 1995 and 1996 end in bitter fashion. They were swept in the 1995 Cup Final by the New Jersey Devils and lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Final a year later in an emotional series that featured the infamous Claude Lemieux hit on Kris Draper, which started a rivalry.

McCarty wanted to improve his game in the summer of 1996, so he flew to Sweden to train with stick-handling coach Thomas Storm. His teachings have had an effect on highly-skilled players over the year, with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk among his many pupils. How would it work with a player like McCarty?

“That goal, even though I beat one guy one-on-one in my whole career, that didn’t start that year or in practice or come out of nowhere,” McCarty told NBC Sports. “Because it’s what are you willing to do to get better?”

When McCarty hit the ice with Storm, he wasn’t taking part in training sessions with other professional players. Instead, here was a veteran NHLer working on stick-handling with 11- and 12-year-olds — one of whom was a future teammate of McCarty’s in Kristian Huselius, who was dubbed “Magic” back then by the Red Wings forward.

Each day the players would warm up by doing a 10-minute stick-handling drill with the goal to get their brains and hands working in alignment.

Toe drag, into your feet, pull out. Toe drag, into your feet, pull out. Toe drag, into your feet, pull out.

Over and over again the players would practice it until the movement became second nature. Storm’s goal was repetition, for the motion to become muscle memory. He taught his students to stick-handle north-south, not laterally.

Little did McCarty know this simple exercise would be the reason we’re still talking about a goal from a Cup Final 22 years later.

***

McCarty’s best offensive year came the following season after working with Storm. He hit career highs in goals (19) and points (49). And nearly three months before he scored the goal, he was a key player in kicking off in what’s known as “Fight Night at the Joe” when Detroit and Colorado brawled in late March. Later that game he would net the overtime winner to end an emotional night.

The Red Wings soared through the Western Conference during the 1997 playoffs and put themselves on the verge of sweeping the Flyers heading into Game 4 of the Cup Final. 

Up 1-0 late in the second period of what would be the final game… well, let’s allow McCarty to walk us through it.

“[Vladimir] Konstantinov takes a hit in the corner, gets mucked around. [Tomas] Sandstrom hits me [with the puck] being a responsible ‘Grind Line’ right-winger through the middle. 

“We were at the end of the shift. My idea was to get it to the red line and dump it in. Tried to dump it in, fanned on it. All of a sudden muscle memory comes into play and I remember going, ‘Oh my God, I got [Niinimaa] beat’ and I saw just a flash of orange because [Ron] Hextall was coming out at me and I was able to pull it around him. 

“I was more nervous about missing the net from that close than I ever was on a three-foot putt or anything like that.”

McCarty’s overwhelming thought as he was in the middle of pulling off the move was “don’t lose the puck.” It could have happened during the toe drag or as he shifted from his backhand to forehead while finding space between Niinimaa’s stick and Hextall, who was playing it as you’d expect — aggressively.

The goal was stunning, but also a meaningful one for the Red Wings, who were all in disbelief. 

“What the f—- was that?,” McCarty recalls Yzerman, his boyhood hero, asking him during the celebration. “I don’t know, but who gives a f—-!,” he replied laughing.

“It’s almost like in football: if you don’t know if it’s a catch you better hurry up and get the play off before they take it back because you’re not supposed to do that,” McCarty joked.

McCarty loves to say that the first person on his Christmas card list every year is Eric Lindros. The Flyers’ captain’s goal with 15 seconds left in the third period cut the Red Wings’ lead to 2-1. That ended up as the final score and McCarty can forever say he scored a Stanley Cup game-winning goal.

The move, which doesn’t have a name, wasn’t tried much, if at all, during the rest of McCarty’s career. He was the type of player in the type of role that didn’t afford many one-on-one opportunities like he had against Niinimaa. He would try it in practice, but when you attempt it against a Hall of Famer like Nicklas Lidstrom every day, you’re going to fail just about every time.

But for one night, and one moment, all McCarty needed was one chance, and he capitalized.

“If you’re going to use that moment then you might as well make it a good one.”

————

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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.