NHL post-quarantine: Recapturing team chemistry a challenge

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Claude Giroux’s Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL back when hockey was still being played.

That was more than two months ago and their next game could be two more months away. He can’t predict how things might go if the season resumes.

“I don’t know,” Giroux said. “Right now, everything’s unknown.”

Among the unknowns about the NHL returning amid the coronavirus pandemic is what the on-ice product might look like. In a team sport that demands rhythm and chemistry, players will have to quickly adapt after so much time apart to recapture what it takes to jump right into the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.

“We want to see great hockey played,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “It’s not an exact science. It’s something we’ve never dealt with before, and we want to make the best and most conscious decision we possibly can to obviously make sure not only guys stay safe, but that the quality of hockey is extremely high.”

Unlike basketball, where one player can dominate a game and carry a team, hockey is predicated on players being in sync, knowing where teammates are — and will be going next — for tape-to-tape passes. Timing as a unit is an essential ingredient to success, and it’s that timing that could be missing early because of so much time off the ice.

With the exception of a handful of players who were rehabbing injuries, living in Sweden or somehow able to find an open rink, most haven’t skated since the season was halted in mid-March. Recapturing that skating stride and building back up to avoid injuries will be a big part of voluntary workouts before the anticipated start of training camps in July.

Some players have expressed concerns about their individual game skills, like Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine expecting himself to be “terrible” after so much time off. Many goaltenders don’t even have their gear with them, and getting back into a groove will take some time.

Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang thinks informal workouts limited to six players on the ice at a given time should be about all that and building up conditioning levels. He sees training camp as the time for coaches and players to do some team rebuilding.

“The skating and everything comes back pretty quick,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “It’s the team mindset, the system play again, where you need to be — that feel. That’s the only stuff you can really get when you’re doing the reps over and over and over again.”

Knowing full well he won’t have a month to work with players before games resume, Edmonton coach Dave Tippett dug up his notes from the abbreviated training camp he oversaw with the Coyotes going into the 2013 lockout-shortened season.

“It’s different because you know the players already,” Tippett said. “It’ll be a little bit like the start of a season where you’ve got to get up and going pretty quick.”

Absent the usual drills to practice rushes, the power play or penalty kill for months, players will have no choice but to acclimate to each other quickly. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said he isn’t worried.

“I think players adapt,” MacLellan said. “Timing and speed and systems play usually takes a few weeks. It’s no different than a training camp coming in, except it’ll be ramped up – the intensity part – quicker. I think players will adapt to it. I think might be scrambly at first, but it’ll be accelerated because of the seriousness and what’s at stake if you’re playing for a championship.”

Even though teams are expected to play a couple of exhibitions before games that count, rediscovering chemistry quickly could make all the difference, especially for those in best-of-five qualifying round series to get to the final 16.

“We’re going to have to find a way to feel good but also get to our team game, get the fundamentals down that way again,” said Foligno, whose Blue Jackets would play Tavares’ Maple Leafs. “The team that can get to their game quickest is going to have success.”

Florida GM Dale Tallon considers it a benefit to have all teams on a level playing field going into a 24-team playoff. But the newness of the situation adds a layer of unpredictability and could make this one of the most competitive chases for the Stanley Cup in history.

“There’s going to be some teams that are going to disappoint because they lost their momentum, there could be injuries in the training camp period of time if we rush too fast to get these guys up to speed,” Nashville GM David Poile said. “It’s going to be like nothing we’ve done before.”

NHL Bubble Wrap: McDavid, Svechnikov put on hat trick shows; Rangers on brink

McDavid Svechnikov hat trick Game 2 NHL scores highlights stars
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  • Andrei Svechnikov and Connor McDavid treated fans with not one, but two hat tricks. Very generous.
  • Carey Price played about as well as you could without actually winning.
  • The Rangers are the first team facing pending elimination, while other series are now 1-0 or tied 1-1.

Monday’s NHL scores, recaps

Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (Carolina leads series 2-0)

The Hurricanes have yet to trail in this 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier series, and the Rangers are running out of time to get back into this. The series could end as soon as Tuesday; either way, the Rangers face serious odds in overcoming this deficit in a best-of-five series. Andrei Svechnikov collected a hat trick, with Sebastian Aho generated three assists of his own. The gap between the Hurricanes and Rangers only seems to get more pronounced as this series goes along. Things will need to change on Tuesday for this not to be a very short series for Artemi Panarin & Co.

Jets 3, Flames 2 (Series tied 1-1)

With Calgary up 1-0, and without both Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, the deck seemed stacked against the Jets. Despite those absences, and seeing the Flames tie things up after Winnipeg went up 2-0, the Jets just found a way to hang in there and tie this series 1-1. Connor Hellebuyck continues to play at a very high level, but the Jets must feel great about their overall team effort to grind out this tough win.

Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) — Eastern Conference Round Robin

Early on, the Lightning dominated puck possession against the Capitals, eventually taking a 2-0 lead. That wouldn’t be enough, as the Capitals were the ones striking lighting-quick with two fast goals. Ultimately, the Lightning won in the shootout to tie the Flyers early on in the race for the East’s top seed.

Golden Knights 5, Stars 3 — Western Conference Round Robin

The biggest story from this one came before the game, as Golden Knights (Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner) joined Stars (Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson) in kneeling during both national anthems. The game itself featured wild swings. After the Golden Knights built a 1-0 first period lead, the Stars rattled off three consecutive goals. The Golden Knights ended up owning the third, however, scoring four straight goals to win.

Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (Series tied 1-1)

When Sidney Crosby scored earlier on, it seemed like it might begin an explosive game. Instead, Carey Price proved very difficult to beat, but the Penguins pulled it off. It wasn’t always pretty — the Penguins’ power play was particularly pungent — but Pittsburgh tied the series 1-1 on Monday.

Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (Series tied 1-1)

Connor McDavid didn’t waste a minute shutting his critics up. He barely “wasted” a second. McDavid scored the 1-0 goal just 19 seconds into Game 2, and ultimately managed a hat trick. Nothing bland about that.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars from Monday’s NHL games

1a. Andrei Svechnikov (with Sebastian Aho); 1b. Connor McDavid (with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins)

How do you pick between hat tricks, in the cases of Svechnikov and McDavid? Especially since, remarkably, both McDavid and Svechnikov managed their hat tricks on three shots on goal apiece? Oh yeah, both McDavid and Svechnikov both scored the game-winning goals on their way to hat tricks, and each player was accompanied by three-assist teammates in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sebastian Aho respectively.

Well … you really need to split hairs. Svechnikov and McDavid both, naturally, dominated play in collecting their hat tricks. Svechnikov was on the ice for two even-strength goals for and none against, while McDavid (two for, one against) had slightly less of a “net positive” at five-on-five. So let’s consider Svechnikov “1a” for Monday.

Also, more people will (understandably) focus on McDavid, so let’s get Svechnikov some love, too. The dude did entertain us with lacrosse-style goals, after all.

3. Carey Price

It’s tough to hand the third star spot to the goalie of a losing team. You could make the point for the three-assist men above, along with another three-helper in Miro Heiskanen of the Stars. Connor Hellebuyck was sharp in helping the Jets manage a hard-fought win.

But goodness, was Price ever outstanding against the Penguins in Game 2. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins’ expected goals at all strengths was 5.51, the most of any team on Monday. That was due in large part to the power-play opportunities the Penguins received, but they truly dominated the Habs. Price kept the Canadiens in the game by stopping 35 out of 37 shots.

It wasn’t enough to steal Game 2 for the Canadiens, but it was enough to impress.

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers — top highlights from Monday

Who in their right mind would call McDavid bland? He certainly isn’t boring on the ice:

Svechnikov: not bland, either.

Factoids

  • By collecting his 68th career playoff goal, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th most in NHL playoff history. That tally also pushed Crosby’s career playoff point total to 188, tying Crosby with Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth all-time.
  • For all of the Golden Knights’ accomplishments as a young team, Monday’s win marked the first time Vegas overcame a multi-goal deficit in the third period to win.
  • This marks McDavid’s first playoff hat trick. Four Oilers managed a hat trick in the last 20 years: McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Bill Guerin, and Doug Weight.

Tuesday NHL schedule: Six 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier games

Game 2: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Islanders lead series 1-0)

Game 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Coyotes lead series 1-0)

Game 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Blue Jackets lead series 1-0)

Game 3: Flames vs. Jets, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Game 3: Hurricanes vs. Rangers, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Rangers lead series 2-0)

Game 2: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Wild lead series 1-0)

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.

McDavid responds with hat trick in Game 2; Oilers tie series with Blackhawks

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Connor McDavid haters: hold onto your hats. Then throw them to the ice/at your TV sets. After an embarrassing overall performance in Game 1, the Oilers tied their 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier Series 1-1 with the Blackhawks by running away with Game 2 by a score of 6-3.

McDavid delivers hat trick in Game 2 as Oilers tie series with Blackhawks

McDavid set the tone right away by scoring the 1-0 goal just 19 seconds into Game 2. The Oilers superstar fattened the Oilers’ lead to 2-0 a bit more than four minutes into Game 2, and eventually McDavid recorded a hat trick by the second period.

The hat trick ceremony was almost as good as watching McDavid hit top speed:

(OK, maybe not, but pretty cool.)

If you look only at box scores, you’d maybe think that McDavid’s Game 2 wasn’t that different than his Game 1 experience. After all, McDavid was productive in Game 1, getting credited with a goal and two assists.

The difference was pretty stark, though, as McDavid and the Oilers struggled mightily all-around in Game 1, while they controlled most of Game 2.

Not perfect, but a big response from the Oilers

Granted, the final score might make Game 2 seem like more of a cakewalk than it truly was.

On one hand, the Oilers hogged the puck for significant spans of play. On the other hand, there was some sloppiness. Edmonton saw a 3-1 lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie as both the Blackhawks and Oilers made plenty of mistakes during Game 2.

McDavid’s hat-trick goal gave Edmonton a 4-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish, though. With two goals 40 seconds apart in the third period, James Neal and Alex Chiasson put Game 2 out of reach.

If these first two games are any indication, this could be a wild series. Blackhawks – Oilers might create a lot of chances for offensive stars like McDavid and Patrick Kane (1G, 1A), and a lot of headaches for the goalie in both nets.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Series tied 1-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

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.

Penguins tie series with Canadiens despite Carey Price’s brilliance

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Some people nodded their heads at the “Carey Price could steal a series against the Penguins” talking points; others rolled their eyes. During much of Game 2 of the Penguins – Canadiens 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier, most people were just shaking their heads in disbelief at how great Price was. Even so, the Penguins did just enough to tie the series 1-1 via a 3-1 win.

Price was righteous; Penguins’ power play needs serious work

Carey Price and the Canadiens penalty kill already impressed in Game 1, keeping an on-paper-potent power play to an inefficient 1-for-7. Price & Co. were even stingier in Game 2, keeping the Penguins off the board (0-for-5) despite a steady stream of early opportunities.

In both games, the Penguins failed to score on 5-on-3 power play opportunities.

As with a lot of these situations, special teams successes and failures come down to a mix of factors. On one hand, the Canadiens performed admirably on the PK, and Price was brilliant whenever that structure broke down. But the Penguins’ power play looked flat, and almost cost Pittsburgh Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Crosby’s goal proved crucial; Penguins dominated Canadiens at even strength in Game 2

When Sidney Crosby scored the 1-0 goal just 4:25 into Game 2, it seemed like it would merely be a prelude to a busy game. Instead, it served as the only goal of Game 2 for significant chunk of the night.

Crosby made some history with that goal, his second in two games. By collecting his 68th career playoff goal, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th most in NHL playoff history. That tally also pushed Crosby’s career playoff point total to 188, tying Crosby with Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth all-time.

Late in the third period, Jason Zucker connected on a nice 2-0 goal, while Conor Sheary collected his second assist of Game 2. Jesperi Kotkaniemi then broke Matt Murray‘s shutout attempt to make it 2-1, but that goal came far too late for Montreal to push Game 2 into OT. Like Crosby, Kotkaniemi has two goals in as many games in this best-of-five series. Jake Guentzel‘s empty-netter ended any hint of late-building drama in Game 2.

Overall, the Penguins find themselves breathing a sigh of relief, and maybe catching their breath. Meanwhile, the Canadiens must feel decent about having this series tied 1-1, although they’ll need to give Price more support to advance. For all of the criticism the Penguins’ power play may receive, the Canadiens likely need to work beyond a “bend but don’t break” approach.

5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (Series tied 1-1/Habs lead series 2-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

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.

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blackhawks-Oilers stream
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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 2 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored 2:34 into the game to give Edmonton the early lead before Chicago scored four straight goals – two by captain Jonathan Toews – to take a 4-1 lead after the first period. Rookie Dominik Kubalik was the story the rest of the way.

While Toews, Patrick Kane, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all found the score sheet, it was Kubalik who made the headlines. The Calder Trophy finalist, who led all rookies with 30 goals during the regular season, set an NHL record for most points (5) in a playoff debut.

Mike Smith allowed five goals on 23 shots before being pulled in the second for Mikko Koskinen.

“We’ll talk about where we are with our goaltenders, and I thought Mikko was fine in net,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “We have confidence in both our guys, we had long discussions about it. We think we’ll use both in the [postseason]… We started the season 5-0 (with) Smitty. We thought we wanted to start the postseason the same way. We were very confident in Smitty. Other than the giveaway that went off his back, he was kind of left on his own out there.”

Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula has been suspended for Game 2 following an illegal check to the head of Tyler Ennis.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Blackhawks lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule