Uncertainty awaits as NHL puts season on ice — for now

Michael Peca knows all about NHL work stoppages.

The two-time Frank Selke Award-winning forward endured two lockouts and lost another season due to a contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres during his 14-year career, which ended with Columbus in 2009.

Never could Peca have imagined a season – never mind essentially the entire North American sports schedule – being placed in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s weird because nothing like this has ever happened, and it’ll probably never happen again, hopefully,” Peca said Thursday, when the NHL joined numerous pro sports leagues in suspending its season.

“It’s like, `Is this even real?’” he added. “But there’s a big-picture purpose to it. … It’s about making sure we can slow down if not cease, but more likely slow down how quickly it’s spreading.”

The NHL placed the final month of its season on ice – for now – but hopes to eventually resume play and still award the Stanley Cup.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league followed the NBA’s lead after Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19.

With the two leagues sharing numerous facilities and locker rooms across North America, Bettman said: “It now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point — it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.”

The NHL Players’ Association backed the decision, calling it “an appropriate course of action.”

The decision left numerous unanswered questions, ranging from when games might resume to what shape players might be in once they return. The stoppage also raised concerns over what the economic impact might be on the bottom line in the league’s 31 markets.

As Nashville Predators president Sean Henry put it: “We’re working through really uncharted territory.”

Henry wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the season not resuming.

“I think there’s a fear for all of us of that,” he added. “We all want answers. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of them.”

There have only been two years in which the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded since 1893. It happened in 1919, when the final was canceled after five games because of the Spanish flu outbreak, and then again in 2005, when an NHL lockout wiped out the entire season.

Though disappointed, players understood the reasoning.

“Nothing is more important than everyone’s health and safety. The league did the right thing today,” Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno wrote in a post on his Twitter account. “We have the best fans in the world, and we’ll get through this together.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

While players will continue to be paid, they won’t be allowed to practice together for at least the short term, the Predators’ Henry said.

The NHL has not said any player has tested positive for COVID-19. The Washington Capitals, who used the same visiting locker room as the Jazz at New York’s Madison Square Garden, said they will closely monitor the health of players, coaches and staff.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who followed the Jazz into two arenas last weekend and occupied the same locker room while in Boston, said deep cleaning and sanitizing was done before they arrived.

In Dallas, Stars forward Alexander Radulov has been sick, but team president Brad Alberts said no players had yet been tested.

Alberts said he’s encouraged a majority of employees to work from home. Players have also been encouraged to quarantine themselves in the event they might have contracted the virus.

Retired NHL forward and Minnesota Wild assistant director of player development Matt Hendricks noted how different this hiatus is to past stoppages.

“This is kind of no-man’s territory,” Hendricks said.

“When we were locked out, we had the ability to go and skate and train,” he said. “But this one’s a little bit different in the sense that you really don’t want to expose yourself if you don’t have to. … So going into public gyms that might not be the best thing to do to put yourself at risk and put others at risk.”

In Buffalo, former Sabres and Wild forward Jason Pominville said it can’t be easy for players to stop competing a month before the playoffs were scheduled to begin..

“They just want to play, they’re in a rhythm, not a lot of practices, playing a lot of games and then, all of a sudden, it’s shut down for who knows how long,” said Pominville, who hasn’t filed his retirement papers since completing his 15th NHL season last year.

He’s spent this season playing in a local beer league. Upon learning of the NHL pausing its season, Pominville playfully reached out to former Sabres teammate, Kyle Okposo.

“I was like, `Hey bud, if you or any of the boys are looking to skate, my beer league’s not canceled yet, and you guys are welcome,’” Pominville said, laughing. “We’re always looking to get better.”

Canucks’ Tanev scores 11 seconds into OT to eliminate Wild

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The Vancouver Canucks are moving on.

They eliminated the Minnesota Wild on Friday night with a 5-4 overtime win that saw them come-from-behind on three different occasions.

Defenseman Chris Tanev scored the series-clinching goal just 11 seconds into overtime, giving the Canucks their first series win since the 2010-11 season.

That goal is tied for the second-fastest OT goal in NHL postseason history (Brian Skrudland scored nine seconds into overtime in a 1986 game for the Montreal Canadiens).

The win for the Canucks now sets the eight-team playoff field in the Western Conference (Vegas, Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Calgary, Vancouver, Arizona, Chicago) while the actual matchups will be determined when the round-robin phase is concluded this weekend.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tanev’s goal on Friday is the first postseason goal of his career and capped off a massive game that saw him finish with three points (goal, two assists) in 24 minutes of ice-time.

Along with the game-winner, he also assisted on Bo Horvat‘s game-tying goal with just under six minutes to play in regulation.

At one point the Canucks trailed this game 3-1 and quickly erased it thanks to a pair of goals from Brandon Sutter and Quinn Hughes just 84 seconds apart midway through the second period. Hughes, one of the finalists for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year and a significant part of the Canucks’ young core, was one of the Canucks’ most impressive players on Friday by logging a team-high 27 minutes of ice time and recording a pair of points. Keep in mind he is still only 20 years old and along with Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Elias Pettersson gives the Canucks a wonderful quartet of young stars to build around.

As for the Wild, this has to be a brutally disappointing result.

When the 2019-20 regular season was paused they were one of the hotter teams in the Western Conference and making a strong push for a playoff spot. It was far from a given that they would play their way in, but they at least gave themselves a chance. Then they opened this series by shutting out the Canucks in Game 1, giving themselves an early edge in the series. They were unable to build on that thanks to a couple of clunkers in Games 2 and 3, and then Friday’s game where they allowed multiple leads to slip away with their season on the line.

It is entirely possible that this game will be the last time Mikko Koivu, one of the finest players in franchise history, suits up for the Wild.

Next for the Wild: Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL draft lottery on Monday where they will have a 12.5 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN wins series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks 5, Wild 4 (OT)

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs force Game 5, stay alive thanks to unbelievable comeback

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were four minutes away from being completely buried.

Four minutes away from having the longest offseason this core of players had ever had to deal with in terms of criticism and scrutiny.

Four minutes away from maybe dealing with the possibility of major changes coming to a team that — to this point — has been unable to get over the hump in the postseason.

That is when the madness started.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just 24 hours after blowing a three-goal lead to lose in overtime, the Maple Leafs flipped the script and erased a three-goal deficit with four minutes to play in regulation to force overtime. It was there that they completed one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history when Auston Matthews scored a power play to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win.

And with that, everything comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday for the right to advance to the field of 16 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It really cannot be understated as to how insane all of this was, and the perfect confluence of events that needed to happen for Toronto to win this game.

For 56 minutes the Maple Leafs were unable to solve Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and when Boone Jenner scored with under seven minutes to play in the third period to give his team a three-goal lead everything seemed over in Toronto.

But with Frederik Andersen pulled for the extra attacker, Toronto started to chip away.

William Nylander started the comeback with 3:57 to play when he scored a goal that — at the time — seemed to be pointless window dressing.

When John Tavares scored less than a minute later to cut the deficit to one, things really started to get interesting.

Even then Toronto needed some extra help to go its way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Game 3 hero for Columbus, had an opportunity to put the game away with an empty-net sitting in front of him, only to have his shot hit the outside of the net. Just a few moments later, Gustav Nyquist failed to gain the red line with the puck when he could have taken a shot at another empty net and gave the puck away, giving Toronto another chance.

The Maple Leafs did not waste the chance. With just 23 seconds to play in regulation Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Matthews scored midway through the period, capitalizing on a Nick Foligno tripping penalty.

During their late third period comeback Toronto had the same combination of players on the ice: Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

With that, Toronto now has a chance to salvage what could have been a disastrous postseason appearance. And who knows, if they lose Game 5 on Sunday all of the things mentioned up at the top (the criticism, the scrutiny, the potential changes) could still happen. This is, after all, a team that is supposed to compete for a Stanley Cup. Losing in the play-in round after three straight Round 1 exits would be awful for the perception of this core. But this win gives them a chance to fight another day and change the narrative around this team. If they do manage to do that and go on a postseason run from here, those four minutes are going be talked about for years.

As for Columbus, well, this has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.

They had this game — and the series — all but won. If you go buy the win probability stat, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning this game with five minutes to play.

All they had to do was avoid a meltdown, and they would have been a giant slayer for the second year in a row. But the meltdown happened.

The Blue Jackets were never supposed to be in this position this season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency, and then dealing with a season-long run of injuries. No one would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they badly regressed or fell off the map. If they are unable to bounce back in Game 5 on Sunday this is going to be the game that will be impossible for them to shake. It was right there. They had it.

Now it all comes down to Sunday.

Honestly, it is the perfect game — and perfect series — for the unpredictable mayhem that the 2019-20 season has been.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 [OT] (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 [OT]
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canucks-Wild stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Canucks-Wild stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Canucks and Wild. Coverage begins at 10:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Wild Game 4 stream at 10:45 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shut out in Game 1, Vancouver responded with a 4-3 win over Minnesota in Game 2 and followed that up with a 3-0 victory in Game 3 on Thursday. Now the Canucks will look to win on back-to-back days and clinch their first playoff series win since 2011, when they made it to the Cup Final.

“Our players need to gain experience in these type of games, but we’re not just here to get experience,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “We want to win the games.”

Minnesota missed the playoffs last season and is now in danger of losing in the opening round of the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, August 7, 10:45 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Chris Cuthbert, Louie DeBrusk
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Wild live look-in stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN leads 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Blackhawks eliminate Oilers to continue wave of Game 4 upsets

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The Oilers put up a good fight with their season on the line in Game 4, but the way it ended was still quite embarrassing as the Blackhawks advanced with a 3-2 win. With that, the 12th-seed Blackhawks advance to the First Round via a 3-1 series win.

For the most part, the Oilers avoided the sort of stinker of an effort to end their season that, say, the Penguins were guilty of. Yet, with the way things ended, the Oilers still ended their season with frustration and embarrassment.

With their season on the line, the Oilers were whistled for a too many men on the ice penalty with 2:02 left in the third period. Edmonton had been pushing Chicago pretty hard to try to tie what was a 3-2 game, but that became a tougher task when emptying the net merely made the final moments even-strength.

Ouch.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Toews, Kubalik, Crawford make it happen for Blackhawks vs. Oilers in Game 4

To start the series, Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik outgunned Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the Oilers. They repeated some of that magic in Game 4, including Toews setting up Kubalik for the game and series-clinching goal.

Game 4 of Blackhawks – Oilers started wildly enough that it seemed like this would be another one of those video-game-style scoring fests. Connor McDavid set up Josh Archibald for a 1-0 goal just 45 seconds into Game 4, and it was 2-2 mere minutes in the second period.

Consider a big mistake averted the possible turning point.

Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat took an egregious boarding penalty when he hit Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear. Edmonton would get a major power-play opportunity for the trouble, but couldn’t cash in. That happened in part because Darnell Nurse took a penalty during that opportunity, yet it was still the sort of moment you highlight if the game ended up being close.

And it was largely up to Corey Crawford to turn a Game 4 of trading haymakers into something the Blackhawks could manage.

Crawford finished Game 4 with 41 saves, including all 18 during a frantic third period. While goaltending was a mess for the Oilers whether it was Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen in net during this series, Crawford stood tall at key times for Chicago.

Now all the Oilers have going for them is second-guessing moments like squandering that major power play. Oh, and hearing a lot of NHL Draft Lottery jokes between now and Monday’s drawing.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI wins series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 2

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.