Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely

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It’s Wednesday, April 8 and tonight we should have been parking ourselves in front of our televisions or gathering inside hockey rinks across the U.S. and Canada to watch playoff hockey.

Instead, we wait. We don’t know when the NHL will resume its 2019-20 schedule and we don’t know how they will complete it if playing out the regular season isn’t an option. Since the NHL pause on March 12,  various formats thrown out, garnering a myriad of responses. If time prevents the league from holding a normal postseason, they’ll have to be creative.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told Mike Tirico on NBCSN’s Lunch Talk Live Tuesday. “We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light — and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can’t play and others places where you can. We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in, nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined what we do by how much time there is because we have next season to focus on as well.”

So what are possibly looking at for a right-to-the-playoffs scenario?

Points percentage

Here are your Round 1 playoff matchups if points percentage was to determine the eight teams in each conference:

Bruins vs. Islanders
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Flyers vs. Penguins

Blues vs. Flames
Avalanche vs. Stars
Golden Knight vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Canucks

There are some juicy pairings in that lot, but what of those teams who missed the cut? Surely the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Panthers, Jets, Wild, and Coyotes would like to see the field expanded considering the unique situation we find ourselves in.

“I don’t think it would be right if we’re left out,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. “We’re close to a playoff spot and have 13 games left. We just started playing as well as we did before the All-Star break, the bye week. We were feeling pretty good, playing with confidence.”

If you stick with the traditional series format, the timing of everything would affect series lengths. Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have been vocal about not having the 2020-21 season interrupted, so if we’re talking about July or August playoff hockey, we can’t have four rounds of best-of-sevens.

Tournament

P.K. Subban said he’d love to see a 31-team tournament to decide the 2020 Stanley Cup winner — and why wouldn’t he when you glance at the Devils’ place in the Eastern Conference standings. But while including every team in the league isn’t the best idea, using this opportunity to be different opens the door for that kind of format if there isn’t time for a full four rounds of playoffs.

Like the points percentage idea, a tournament would require some sort of cut off point to fill the field. Do you forget conferences and just go with an overall Sweet 16 and best-of-three series? Would it be ideal to include 24 teams and work in byes for those atop the standings?

Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly told NHL.com’s The Rink podcast that he wants a full four-round playoff.

“I know you can do it in a different way, but if it was up to me, from my time being in the League and other guys I’ve talked to on the team, we really need to protect the integrity of the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s a whole other season in its own so I think it’s got to be a full, best-of-7 for four rounds, for sure. It’ll be interesting to see how they make that work, how you can condense it to still give the teams fighting for a wild card a chance, but I think you have to have the full thing.

“It’ll be tough and obviously I don’t have all the answers, but I feel it really protects the integrity of the Stanley Cup. It is extremely difficult. Having to beat a team four times is not an easy thing to do, and I just feel we need to have that.”

Neutral sites

An NHL playoff or tournament set up with games played in either one city or multiple locations? That’s been discussed with locations such as Buffalo and Grand Forks, North Dakota serving as potential options. However many teams, isolated in a city, away from their families. The league would love the unique aspect to such a conclusion to a season, but would the players? 

As with the Major League Baseball idea that was floated on Tuesday or the NBA’s in Las Vegas, what would the logistics look like for the NHL? Would there be fans? How long of a period of time would the players and staff be away from their families in such a scenario? Will there be tests upon arrival? What if a player or staff member contracts the virus? Will there be an expansion of rosters?

And that’s just with the logistics involving the teams. What about the people working at the arena(s)? And should medical personnel be used in this case and not be assisting hospitals?

As Bettman said Tuesday, there’s too much uncertainty to have an idea when the NHL will be given a green light to resume games. The planning needs to be done for all situations once that happens, and more and more it’s looking like if playoffs do happen, it will be a unique format that wins out for this special circumstance.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

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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.

Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

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Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

“Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

“We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

“He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

“Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

“There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”

Tkachuk sends Panthers to Stanley Cup Final, after topping Hurricanes 4-3 for sweep

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Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.

The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers – a hockey punchline no more – are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.

Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.

The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting sometime next week; Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.

“This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series – four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.

The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots – which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.

And now, beasts of the East. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a Cup. He’s four wins away.

“It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov – the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner – grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.

That’ll wait for the big prize.

“It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.”

Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept a series for the first time in franchise history.

Jordan Staal – his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers – took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.

“Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”

Toy rats – the Panthers’ tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida’s old arena in 1996 – sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.

Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.

“Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

That wasn’t sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, a Bobrovsky not here, a Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone much differently.

But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.

Towels waved, strobe lights flashed, and the fans wasted no time letting the Panthers know that they were ready to a clincher.

Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina – a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season – made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny’s goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.

Lomberg’s goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast got the equalizer with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off – getting the Panthers to the title round in his first season.

“It’s been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”

AROUND THE RINK

Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. … Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs – extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. … Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett’s hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. … Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel – who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring – banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.

TWO-GOAL EDGE

Tkachuk’s goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 – and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.

Jamie Benn suspended 2 games after captain-on-captain hit

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS — Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn was suspended two games by the NHL after an ugly hit on Vegas captain Mark Stone in a Game 3 loss that left Dallas on the brink of being swept out of the Western Conference Final.

Benn will miss the must-win Game 4 for the Stars and Game 5 as well if they win. If Dallas is swept, the suspension would extend to the opener next season.

Benn got a game misconduct for his cross-check less than two minutes into Game 3 after the captains collided near the blue line. After Stone fell to the ice, Benn lunged forward with both hands on his stick and made contact near Stone’s neck as he was sliding over the center line.

In a video announcing the suspension, the league noted Benn is in control of the play and made the decision to cross-check Stone, who was in a vulnerable position.

“This is simply an unnecessarily dangerous decision by Benn, and it is delivered with sufficient intent and force to merit supplemental discipline,” the league said.

Benn had been fined four times but never suspended before in his 14 NHL seasons. Before his hearing, Benn said he wished he hadn’t used his stick “as a landing point” during the play.

“Just heat of the moment. … I need to be more responsible with my body and my stick,” Benn said. “My first shift of a game on home ice when you’re pretty jacked up and down 1-0, so you want to try to get your team going. Emotions are high and, you know, it was just an unfortunate play.”

Vegas scored on the ensuing power play, doubling its lead, before going on to a 4-0 win to take a 3-0 series lead. With a win, the Knights would advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in the franchise’s six seasons.

“I didn’t love what transpired, but it got handled the right way and we stayed focused as a team,” said Stone, who also spoke before the suspension was announced.

The Stars had hoped for a strong Game 3 but instead saw the Golden Knights score three times in the first 7 1/2 minutes to chase inconsistent goalie Jake Oettinger amid a series of ugly penalties and even fans pelting the ice with debris.

Stone said he was “a little bit surprised” at that kind of play happening when it did.

“It was early in the game, my first shift of the game,” he said. “I didn’t expect to get stomped on like that.”

Asked what he could have done differently in that moment, Benn said he obviously didn’t want to take a five-minute major penalty.

“But the game happens fast, emotions are high, and obviously would have liked to not fall on him and, I guess, use my stick as a landing point,” Benn said.

Dallas coach Pete DeBoer had said the Stars were prepared for the possibility that Benn wouldn’t be available for a game that they must win to extend their season.

“The bottom line is that there’s consequences for actions and he’s paying the consequences for that,” DeBoer said. “From our group’s perspective, I think everybody wants to see Jamie Benn play again. I think we all want to make sure his season doesn’t end on a note like that.”

DeBoer said that Oettinger would be back in net for Game 4, even after losing three starts in a row. He has lost four of five, but the win was in Game 7 over Seattle last week.

Along with Benn, the Stars could also be without forward Evgenii Dadonov. He left with a lower-body injury in the first period, and DeBoer said he was doubtful for Game 4.

Max Domi, who got a 10-minute misconduct at the end of the second period, was fined $5,000 by the NHL for slashing Stone in the closing minutes of the game; no penalty was called.

The earlier misconduct came when Domi, after cross-checking Nicolas Hague, started throwing punches with 21 seconds left in the second.

Fans reacted to penalties being called on Domi by throwing water bottles, food and other items on the ice. With extended time needed to clean up the playing surface, officials sent both teams to their locker rooms early and finished those final seconds after the intermission before playing the third period.

Dallas Stars president Brad Alberts issued an apology to the Golden Knights and the NHL for “the actions of a few of our spectators at last night’s game. Their actions were unacceptable and put the safety of the players and fans at risk.

“We take pride in providing the best experience for everyone who enters our arena,” he said. “The actions of these individuals certainly do not reflect our great city, organization and loyal fan base.”