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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Makar’s incredible rookie season; Load management in NHL

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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.

• Capitals head coach Todd Reirden brought a few champions in to talk to his team about winning it all. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Why have the Devils’ bad players playing well and why are the good players playing bad? (All About the Jersey)

• How has Kevin Hayes looked in his first few games with the Flyers? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Rod Brind’Amour is already the best coach in Hurricanes franchise history. (Cardiac Cane)

• Only Brendan Shanahan will be able to fire Mike Babcock. (Leafs Nation)

Noel Acciari has been an incredible steal for the Florida Panthers. (The Rat Trick)

Cale Makar is having a rookie season for the ages. (The Hockey News)

• The wives and girlfriends of Canadiens players are learning how to play hockey. (Sportsnet)

• We’re starting to see load management between the pipes in the NHL. (ESPN)

• This broadcast duo have been calling Red Wings games for 25 years. (Detroit News)

• The Golden Knights need to make sure that they don’t let their recent struggles frustrate them. (Sinbin.Vegas)

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: McDavid, Draisaitl stay red-hot; Lightning torch Rangers

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers
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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

There is a reason these two lead the NHL in points and a combined 11-point outing will certainly keep them there a bit longer. McDavid recorded his second hat trick in three games and his first career six-point outing. Draisaitl had five assists and extended his point streak to 11 games as the Oilers skated to a 6-2 victory against the Colorado Avalanche. If the Oilers feel that the rest of the lineup can provide enough support McDavid and Draisaitl can build on a dynamic partnership and help Edmonton return to the postseason.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

A trip to Sweden was the perfect opportunity for the Lightning to find their form and in their first game back in North America, they proved they still are an elite offensive team. Kucherov capped off an explosive stretch when Tampa Bay scored three times in a span of 61 seconds and added three assists. It was the second time this season Kucherov recorded four points.

3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

The Czech forward had two goals as the San Jose Sharks extended their winning streak to five with an important 5-3 victory against the Anaheim Ducks. Hertl was the beneficiary of a suspect call when he pushed John Gibson’s pad over the goal line in the opening period. But on his second of the night, the 26-year-old wired a wrister to even the score in the second period. After a slow start, the Sharks are hoping to climb their way back into the playoff race.

Highlights of the Night

McDavid doing McDavid things

Video game dekes are normally reserved for an alternate reality but Justin Dowling of the Dallas Stars showed his slick hands with an impressive toe drag.

Before a one-timer is launched, there are times you just know the player is going to connect. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is one goal away from the 400-goal mark after this blistering slap shot.

Blooper of the Night

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins probably had a different plan for this celebration

Factoids

  • Connor McDavid became the fourth player in Oilers history to record two hat tricks in three games, joining Wayne Gretzy, Glen Anderson and Jari Kurri [NHL PR].
  • McDavid and Draisaitl are just the second Oilers teammates in the last 30 years to each record five points in a game [NHL PR]
  • The Hurricanes have not lost a game against the Sabres since March 22m 2016 and are one of five teams with an active win streak of 10+ games vs. one opponent [NHL PR]
  • Dougie Hamilton is the fastest defenseman in Hurricanes/Whalers franchise history to reach 20 points in a season (19 GP) [Sportsnet Stats]
  • The Lightning scored four goals in each of the first and second periods of a game for first time in franchise history [NHL PR]
  • Tampa Bay scored four goals in the first 6:42 of Thursday’s game. Only five teams have accomplished that feat faster in the last 25 years [NHL PR].

Scores

Lightning 9, Rangers 3

Hurricanes 5, Sabres 4 (OT)

Jets 4, Panthers 3

Wild 3, Coyotes 2

Oilers 6, Avalanche 2

Stars 4, Canucks 2

Sharks 5, Ducks 3

Kings 3, Red Wings 2

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Necas rewarding Hurricanes’ patience

Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas
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Highly touted prospects are consistently called on to produce shortly after their draft year, sometimes hindering their growth as players.

Whether the club is competing for the Stanley Cup, looking to become a contender or facing a salary cap dilemma, young players on entry-level contracts have become a staple in the NHL.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the patience they showed during Martin Necas’ development process has proven to be beneficial.

Necas has recorded 13 points through 19 games, including an assist on Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. The 20-year-old forward darted into the offensive zone and could not complete a breakaway opportunity midway through overtime. However, instead of losing his composure, Necas stayed with the play, retrieved the puck and set up Hamilton to help Carolina secure a 5-4 victory.

Carolina selected Necas with the 12th pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. Necas played one game in the NHL that season before returning to the Czech Republic. Last year, Necas had a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes, but the organization felt he needed more fine-tuning in the American Hockey League, where he helped the Charlotte Checkers capture the Calder Cup.

The pressure surrounding a first-round pick is omnipresent during the development process and only heightens when the prospect needs additional time outside the NHL. The situation is even more magnified when the big club is contending for a championship and contemplating a major trade deadline acquisition or a promotion from within.

But Carolina’s front office resisted the urge to disrupt Necas’ development and is reaping the rewards from that tough decision this season.

If Necas continues to produce, he will be in contention for a different Calder Trophy this season. While an individual award is an accomplishment, Carolina is hoping its patience will be rewarded as the team looks to build on its Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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.