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PHT Face-Off: Konecny is flying; Can Hurricanes survive goalie injuries?

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It’s Monday, which means it’s time for the PHT Face-Off. We’ll break down some of the topics and trends around the NHL for the upcoming week and beyond.

• Will Stanley Cup Champions bring back Pietrangelo?

The St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins both have free-agent defensemen that they’d probably like to re-sign before July 1st.

For the Blues, that’s captain Alex Pietrangelo. The 30-year-old will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and he’s been a key cog for the defending Stanley Cup Champions. He has 13 goals and 49 points in 65 games this year, which puts him on pace for over 60 points.

The veteran also plays key minutes for the Blues, as he’s currently averaging just over 24 minutes per game. One interesting nugget about Pietrangelo is that he’s capable of playing with different partners throughout the season. He’s played at least 220 minutes with Justin Faulk, Carl Gunnarsson, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn.

Whether they win the cup again or not, losing Pietrangelo to free agency for nothing would be devastating.

The Blues have almost $74 million committed to next year’s salary cap (assuming the upper limit stays at $81.5 million). They still need to fill out the rest of their roster, so that means they’ll have less than $7.5 million to give their captain to stay. Given the numbers he’s put up over the course of his career, it’ll take more than $7.5 million per year anyway.

General manager Doug Armstrong has an interesting problem on his hands. Last week, he mentioned that negotiations wouldn’t start until after the season. Can he make the numbers work?

• What will the Blackhawks do between the pipes? 

The Chicago Blackhawks traded Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights last week, which left Corey Crawford and Malcolm Subban, who they got in the trade, on their roster.

Crawford has looked relatively good over the last few weeks. He’s managed to keep the opposition to two goals or fewer in four of his last five outings. It’s arguably the best he’s looked all season.

“He’s been excellent,” head coach Jeremy Colliton said, per NBC Sports Chicago. “He’s been good all year but another level the last month or two, and it’s good for our group.”

The fact that they traded Lehner away doesn’t really affect their long-term question marks between the pipes. Like Lehner, Crawford is scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st. With a good showing down the stretch, Subban could become the team’s backup goaltender on a full-time basis next year, but they still need an undisputed starter heading into 2020-21.

Even if Crawford continues rolling down the stretch, you’d have to think that GM Stan Bowman will look for another proven option outside the organization. Crawford is 35 and he’s struggled to stay healthy over the last few years.

Assuming Capitals netminder Braden Holtby makes it to free agency, could he be a fit with the Blackhawks? Could they bring back Lehner once he hits the market?

Bowman can bring Crawford back as a part-time starter if he wants to, but they can’t go into next season with him as an undisputed starter. It’s way too much of a risk for a Blackhawks team that needs to make the playoffs.

• Can inexperienced goalies keep Hurricanes in playoff hunt?

If the playoffs started today, the Carolina Hurricanes wouldn’t be in them. There’s no denying that the ‘Canes have a talented group, but they’re currently facing some adversity in goal. Both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are out, and now that the Dave Ayres story has cooled off, they’re left with two inexperienced goalies in Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic.

Carolina is three points behind Columbus for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes have three games in hand though. But they’re coming off a 4-3 OT loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. Forsberg got the start in the game, but he was given the hook after allowing three goals on 20 shots before the midway point of the game. They managed to mount a three-goal comeback after Forsberg got the hook, but still ended up falling short.

Since Ayres won that game against Toronto two Saturdays ago, the ‘Canes have gone 0-2-1 with Forsberg and Nedeljkovic.

Can head coach Rod Brind’Amour get enough out of his goaltenders to sneak his team back into the postseason? That’s the biggest question mark right now.

“They’re very capable goalies,” forward Justin Williams said after the loss to Montreal, per NHL.com. “It could easily have been 4-0, then we’d be out of it. So it was an important point, and we dug in the last half of the game.”

• Konecny is flying

The Philadelphia Flyers have rattled off six wins in a row dating back to Feb. 18. They’ve been so good that Money Puck has given them the best odds of hoisting the Stanley Cup:

The Flyers have jumped ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division. They’re now just three points ahead of Washington for the first place. Can they do what most of us thought was unthinkable just a few weeks ago?

There’s many reasons why the Flyers are rolling, but one of the key contributors has been Travis Konecny. During this winning streak, he’s picked up four goals and eight assists. The 22-year-old has 23 goals and 60 points in 62 games this season, which puts him on pace for almost 30 goals and more than 75 points.

Check out these five-on-five numbers (originally tweeted on Feb. 26):

That’s some elite company for Konecny to be in. The scary thing is that he’s probably only going to get better from here.

What’s coming up this week
Jean-Gabriel Pageau plays Sens for first time since trade to Isles – Thu. Mar. 5, 7 p.m. ET
• Panthers will retire Luongo’s No. 1 – Sat. Mar. 7, 7 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
• Bruins vs. Lightning, Tue. Mar. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET
• Ducks vs. Avalanche, Wed. Mar. 4, 9:30 p.m. ET
• Hurricanes vs. Flyers, Thu. Mar. 5, 7 p.m. ET
• Blues vs. Blackhawks, Sun. Mar. 8, 7:30 p.m. ET
• Avalanche vs. Sharks, Sun. Mar. 8, 10 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey
• Flyers vs. Capitals, Wed. Mar. 4, 7 p.m. ET

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.

Sabres’ Okposo has surgery to repair right knee injury

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo had surgery to repair a right knee injury, leaving him plenty of time to recover during the team’s extended break.

The team on Friday announced Okposo had surgery this week, and is expected to miss up to six weeks.

The Sabres are off indefinitely after being one of seven teams to not qualify for the NHL’s proposed 24-team return-to-play format. The start of next season is expected to be pushed back, and may not open until January because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Okposo had surgery a week after the remainder of the Sabres season was canceled.

He was sidelined twice last season because of upper- and lower-body injuries that led to him missing 16 games. The 13-year veteran finished with nine goals and 10 assist for 19 points in 52 games, while playing mostly on Buffalo’s checking line.

PHT reviews hockey video games: ‘Super Blood Hockey,’ a gory good time

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Every week, PHT will spotlight hockey video games you might not have heard of. Previously, that meant looking back at games that are now largely inaccessible. This week’s edition, on the other hand, can be found in many spots: “Super Blood Hockey.”

As we look back at old and very old arcade-style hockey games, it’s almost inevitable to wallow in the sadder elements of nostalgia. Why can’t current games capture those good old days?

Well, games like “Super Blood Hockey” aim to do just that. After spending some time with the Switch version of the game, I think solo developer Loren Lemcke’s aim ended up being mostly on.

“Super Blood Hockey” is an evolution (and devolution) of NES “Ice Hockey”

Earlier in this series, we looked at the NES classic “Ice Hockey,” which originally released around 1988. Thanks to the Nintendo Switch’s SNES emulator (available with Switch Online), you can toggle between “Ice Hockey” and “Super Blood Hockey” on the same device.

Of course, it really might come down to letting your kids play “Ice Hockey,” but not “Super Blood Hockey.”

On one hand, SBH carries a lot of the same spirit of that Nintendo classic. There are “fat, skinny, normal” players, with the skinnier being more elusive, and the “fat” being tougher to knock off the puck than vintage Eric Lindros. Much like “Ice Hockey,” “Super Blood Hockey” only involves four skaters and a goalie, rather than the NHL standard.

Fights definitely play a role in the game, as much like in classic titles, the team that wins a fight — actually a wild line brawl — goes up one player. In fact, as I learned earlier today in researching the game a bit more, you can also go up four skaters to one.

A meaty and gory franchise mode

The not-so-family friendly stuff boils down to the gore, and the dark gallows humor of the franchise mode.

Rather than a dry GM mode setup such as games like “NHL 20,” you begin the “Super Blood Hockey” version by … giving up a kidney to afford your team?

Super Blood Hockey screen kidney
via Super Blood Hockey

When you lose a fight, you don’t just essentially go on the penalty kill. You also risk being “down a man” in a dark way. Like, say, losing your best player “Ryan Bretzel.”

Super Blood Hockey poor Bretzel
via Super Blood Hockey

The game’s lack of an NHL or NHLPA license means that you get some fun names (Adam “Pates,” huh?) and the game can go down some literal dark alleys with drug use.

 

When it comes to the humor, your results will vary. As someone who worries that players might be put at risk to return to play, there’s some catharsis in the satire of “Super Blood Hockey,” though. The tone generally works for me, possibly thanks to the throwback pixel art.

Super Blood Hockey discard
Players are inmates in this dark franchise mode. (via Super Blood Hockey)

In a May 2019 interview with Nintendojo, “Super Blood Hockey” developer Loren Lemcke explained the tone of the game:

The omnipresent evil of profit-motive haunts the US Healthcare system and poisons our compassion by injecting into us the necessary machinery to dehumanize others. One doesn’t have to dig very deep to discover a terrifying crypt of nightmarish and surreal ordeals inflicted upon the sick and dying in the name of profit. Super Blood Hockey is a mere cartoonish effigy of the very real kafkaesque horrors levied upon the poor.

(How many other sports video game franchise modes inspire use of the term “kafkaesque?” OK, beyond the microtransactions in the NBA2K series.)

Ultimately, “Super Blood Hockey” follows its retro roots as being a fairly stripped-down game. You won’t play 20+ seasons in this franchise mode, seeing Connor McDavid and Jack Hughes retire along the way.

Yet there’s a lot to like. I’m not sure how much of a difference it really makes when I tell my little pixely players to rest vs. hit the gym, but it’s fun to tweak their stats.

An impressive effort could be just a bit better with more resources

If you follow indie video games, you realize that small teams, sometimes basically one person, can sometimes will a game into existence. Sometimes that comes down to making the types of games that don’t get made any longer.

People craved another “Harvest Moon” game, so largely solo developer Eric Barone accomplished his own take on the series with “Stardew Valley.” That game became a smash hit, and Lemcke’s enjoyed his own success while making “Super Blood Hockey” an evolution and devolution of NES “Ice Hockey.”

Now, sure, there are beefs.

Above all else, it would be wonderful to be able to play games online. What better way to keep in touch with friends than to take advantage of their teams being down 4-on-2 thanks to lost fights?

And, while I’d argue that the game plays well, there can be some maddening moments. Sometimes it’s just flat-out frustrating trying to score against Pong-inspired goalies.

SBH stats
Bretzel’s sacrifice? Yeah, kind of in vain. (via Super Blood Hockey)

But with a fantastic retro soundtrack and look, and some fun gameplay, “Super Blood Hockey” could be a nice fit for those wanting an old-school hockey game. It’s often pretty cheap and on many platforms, from the Nintendo Switch to PC, to XBox One and Playstation 4.

As far as what’s next for Lemcke, well, I might need to check out his other project. If you’re of a certain age, you also have fond memories of the “Rampage” arcade games. It looks like Lemcke shared such memories, because check out “Terror of Hemasaurus.”

That looks like it might be worthy of its own movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to be honest.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

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.

Roundtable: Best hub cities for NHL’s Return to Play

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Which two potential hub cities would be the best options for the NHL?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’m going to rule out Canadian cities because … frankly, Canada is (broadly speaking) taking a more cautious approach. That’s positive for the greater good, but not those who want to hand out a 2020 Stanley Cup. That said, if the NHL was willing to comply with 14-day quarantines and the like, that would be a different ballgame.

But I’ll go with two cities in the U.S. to try to be more realistic.

My choices:
• Las Vegas, NV
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

Look, you’re not going to find “perfect” options. But, after looking at the CDC’s listings for states/jurisdictions with the least and most infections, Nevada and Minnesota seem like decent bets. Of course, a lot can change in a few weeks, which is the timeline Gary Bettman discussed while pondering potential “hub cities.”

Personally, I’d be weighing safety far and away more than other factors, which is why I leaned (tentatively or not) toward Las Vegas and Minneapolis/St. Paul. In all honesty, the low infection rates of places like North Dakota make me wonder if ND really does rank among the best options. But oh well?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably repeat it some more: the NHL’s going to really need to show some finesse in threading the needle of actually pulling this off.

[Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I agree with James on the Canadian options. Given the current government mandates, if the NHL wants these two hub cities decided on in the next few weeks, I can’t see Edmonton, Vancouver or Toronto having the time to appease the league’s desires.

The one clear front-runner is Vegas, for obvious reasons. Hotel capacity, transportation, rinks, low COVID-19 case rates. The Nevada summer heat is one worry I have, which will give Dan Craig and his team plenty of work to do to ensure the sheets are up-to-par.

Columbus or Pittsburgh would make sense if you want that East/West mix for TV. If the schedule is going to be something similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, the Columbus/Pittsburgh side would start their games at noon ET and we’d have hockey all day with the Vegas games ending the night.

Both have key factors in their corner: multiple ice sheets, hotel proximity, and have been flattening the curve when it comes to COVID-19 cases.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: From the outside, it would seem the top considerations for hub city destinations are the COVID-19 conditions, and whether the infrastructure is sufficient to execute a tournament of this scope. The former is a variable that involves expert opinion and decision making, so I won’t attempt to weigh the cities based on that. The latter is something the league had time to evaluate before it announced the 10 candidates, so one would assume that all the “finalists” meet whatever minimum standard is required to host.

My initial thought from the very beginning was that Las Vegas should be a lock, and the details of what that might look like were described in a recent report from The Athletic. Vegas seems uniquely equipped to create the most controlled environment for these purposes. That’s got my first vote.

With that in mind, my second hub city choice is Pittsburgh, for a few reasons:

First, geographical balance is important considering that, at least at the very beginning, there figure to be several games per day across the two sites. This Olympic-style format would work best on TV if there were staggered start times to accommodate audiences in every time zone. That rules out Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Second, it’s unclear to what extent the US-Canada border situation will influence the final decision, but given where things stand at this exact moment, it seems more practical to have both sites in the US. That rules out Edmonton and Toronto.

That leaves Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pittsburgh. I’ve got no good reason for picking Pittsburgh except: why not give a carrot to the team that has to go up against Carey Price (who was the overwhelming choice for best goalie in this year’s NHLPA Player Poll) and the Montreal Canadiens (who effectively had a zero percent chance of making the playoffs when the season paused)?

There you have it. Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. The Marc-Andre Fleury bowl.

MORE:
NHL announces return-to-play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

Russia hires Bragin as men’s national hockey team coach

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia hired Valery Bragin as coach of the men’s national hockey team on Friday as it gears up to defend its Olympic title in 2022.

Bragin moves up from his longtime role in charge of the Russian under-20 team, which he led to the silver medal at this year’s world junior championships.

The Russian Hockey Federation didn’t say for how long Bragin’s contract runs. Bragin said his main aim was to prepare the team for next year’s world championships with a focus on players from outside the NHL.

Bragin replaces former Toronto Maple Leafs player Alexei Kudashov, who moves into a consultant role with the national team after 11 months as head coach.

Bragin also takes over from Kudashov as head coach of club team SKA St. Petersburg, whose operations are tightly intertwined with those of the national team. Roman Rotenberg is the general manager for both teams and holds vice president roles in both the club and the federation.

Rotenberg said in a statement that Kudashov “cannot currently put his full focus on coaching work.” He did not elaborate further.

Three-time Stanley Cup champion Igor Larionov replaces Bragin in charge of the junior team.

Russia’s players won the men’s hockey gold medal at the 2018 Olympics under the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” name after the country was officially barred from the games for doping offenses.