Game On: NHL restart a small step toward return to normalcy

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TORONTO — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took a short break from watching the final few exhibition games Thursday to ponder the significance of awarding the Stanley Cup some two months from now – should all go as planned.

The magnitude of the task it took to simply reach the cusp of resuming play following a four-and-a-half month pause certainly suggests this year’s celebration has the potential of being a shared experience.

”That’s a very profound question, and I think the answer is extraordinary times present extraordinary challenges. And it takes an extraordinary group of people with an extraordinary effort to get the result you want,” Bettman told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

”If you look at the NHL family as a whole, starting with our fans, our players, our people at the league office and our club, the focus, the determination, the desire and the effort – assuming we’re able to get to that goal – will have been the ultimate collaboration,” he added. ”I believe whoever ultimately hoists the Stanley Cup will deserve it in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and probably still can’t.”

The first step towards closing the NHL’s most unique season begins Saturday, with the start of the expanded 24-team playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.

A nine-day slate of a potentially 52 games — depending on the results of the eight best-of-five series — will begin with the Carolina Hurricanes facing the New York Rangers at noon (Eastern) in Toronto. The top four teams in each conference, meanwhile, will play a round-robin series to determine seeding for the first round to begin Aug. 11.

Rust will certainly play a factor, given how the exhibition games over the past three days featured a mix of sloppy and surreal.

The crispness might take some time to develop after months with no action, and the ice conditions will need to be monitored in the summer heat – even in empty arenas – with as many as three games a day.

With players eager to hit opponents after weeks of practices and scrimmages, New York rivals Johnny Boychuk and Brendan Lemieux dropped the gloves for an old-time hockey tussle.

So much for self-isolation.

Keep in mind, too, what might spill over with teams quarantining in a ”bubble” in the same hotels – though staying on separate floors.

”The chance for weirdness is probably inevitable,” New York Islanders veteran Cal Clutterbuck said.

”I’m sure there’ll be a lot of head down, walk right by, maybe just give a quick nod if you run into somebody,” he added, before breaking into a laugh. ”I’m sure it’ll be civil but strange, although you never know.”

Little seems normal in the age of COVID-19.

Not the mostly empty streets of downtown Toronto, where the hustle and bustle of the business-suited crowd and tourists is down to a trickle.

The entrances of the Royal York Hotel, where some teams are staying, were completely fenced off and covered in black tarp featuring NHL and NHL playoff logo, with a notable security presence at each entry point.

Though hockey was being played inside Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, there was no hint of it outside the building.

Maple Leaf Square, usually packed with throngs of fans, was instead fenced off, and the benches used by a handful of NHL and arena staff enjoying a late lunch.

Even the Hockey Hall of Fame was essentially empty. It’s averaging about 100 visitors a day since it opened two weeks ago, as opposed to the usual 1,000.

”This is steady by comparison to a month ago,” an employee at the Hall of Fame’s gift store cracked, pointing to the two customers inside.

For Maple Leafs and Oilers players, there’s no such thing as home-ice advantage. They’ll be getting changed in the visitors’ locker room when called for and certainly won’t be sleeping in their own beds.

”I think the reality definitely set in yesterday,” Oilers goalie Mike Smith said Monday, a day after teams moved into their respective bubbles. ”You bring your luggage into a hotel room after you drive to the rink 10 minutes from your house.”

In Toronto, the city in early August would be buzzing if not for the coronavirus.

The long-standing Caribbean Carnival two-week long street fest was supposed to open this weekend. The Toronto Blue Jays are spending their entire season south of the border. And the Canadian National Exhibition, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, would be gearing up to open in a few weeks.

Chosen as one the NHL’s two hubs is a point of pride for Toronto Mayor John Tory, even if it means fans can’t attend.

”We consider ourselves over others – like it or not – to be the hockey capital of the world, and so this kind of reinforces that,” Tory said. And he doesn’t mind Edmonton being chosen to host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, even if it means the Maple Leafs win their first championship since 1967 in Alberta.

Tory has already made initial plans for the Cup celebration.

”If it needs to be a one-car parade with no spectators on Bay Street, we will have such a parade,” Tory said. ”So long as the one car has the Stanley Cup in it, I won’t care beyond that.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault hopes the return of hockey can represent one small step in a return to normalcy.

Vigneault has good reason to hope after spending part of the NHL break in his native Quebec. His first stop was visiting his parents at a senior care residence, where his 87-year-old mother is battling dementia.

Both came out on their second-floor balcony, from where he enjoyed a brief chat.

”It was a cold day in May, but it was a good day for my mom. She recognized me,” Vigneault said. ”This moment was no doubt the highlight of my quarantine.”

NHL Power Rankings: Most impactful performances so far in NHL qualifying round

NHL Power Rankings
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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we are taking a look at some of the most important and impressive performances so far in the qualifying round. Players and performances that are making an impact in determining who moves forward in the bubble and who goes home.

Two important notes here.

  • First, We are only looking at players that are playing in the QUALIFYING round portion of the playoffs. So no players from the Round Robin portion will be included. It is not that they are not important, it is simply the fact they are not at risk of being eliminated in this round and we want to focus on teams that are still fighting for their postseason lives right now.
  • Second, this is not a ranking of the best overall players. It is simply a ranking of players that could (and have) significantly impact the outcome of a series and play a major role in deciding which teams advance and which teams do not.

Who do we like so far?

To the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. He is the most dominant player in the NHL and has already put on a clinic in the Oilers’ series against Chicago. His incredible Game 2 effort on Monday set the tone early for the Oilers and drove them to a much-needed win to keep them in their series. When he is going at his top level there is no one in the league that can match him.

2. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. An emerging superstar in Carolina, Svechnikov is already turning into the Hurricanes’ go-to player on offense. He made history in their Game 2 win by recording the first postseason hat trick in Hurricanes/Whalers postseason history. He is still only 20 years. Sky is the limit here.

3. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. If the Canadiens are going to pull off the upset against the Pittsburgh Penguins it is going to have to be because of Price. Through two games he has done everything he can to keep his team in it. He helped them take Game 1 with a huge performance early on and was perhaps even better in a Game 2 loss. He just did not get any offensive support.

4. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Kubalik has been exactly what the Blackhawks needed this season — Another impactful player to emerge in their lineup to serve as an important complementary piece to their remaining core. Even more important is the fact is still very cheap against the salary cap. He opened the postseason with a five-point effort in Game 1 against Edmonton. He is a rookie of the year finalist, a much deserved honor.

5. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets. Goaltending was always going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season, and the duo of Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins has done its part to give them a chance. Korpisalo added to the postseason anxiety Maple Leafs fans were probably already feeling in Game 1 when he pitched a shutout in Toronto.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

6. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets. Very similar to Price in Montreal, if the Jets are going to make something happen in the playoffs they are going to need Hellebuyck to play like the Vezina Trophy finalist that he is this season. That is even more true if top forwards Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine continue to miss time.

7. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Svechnikov’s dominance has kind of overshadowed what Aho has done for the Hurricanes, but this duo has become a two-headed monster for the Hurricanes. Svechnikov might end up being a bigger star, but Aho is the building block piece in Carolina.

8. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. He has been on the ice for all three of the Penguins’ 5-on-5 goals through the first two games, has scored two of them, and helped get the Penguins rolling in Game 2 with a first period goal to finally break through on Price.

9. Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild. Alex Stalock got the Game 1 shutout for the Wild, but Spurgeon was the best player on the ice for the Wild. He played his usual big minutes, was a rock defensively, and contributed to all three Wild goals, scoring two of them. Consistently one of the league’s most underrated and overlooked players.

10. Adam Lowry, Winnipeg Jets. Lowry is making an early bid for the 2020 John Druce Award for being the out of nowhere postseason star. After recording just 10 points in 49 regular season games, Lowry already has three points in the Jets’ first two postseason games and has played a significant role in filling in for the team’s injured stars. He was huge for them in what basically amounted to a must-win game in Game 2 against Calgary.

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.

Islanders-Panthers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Islanders-Panthers stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Tuesday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Islanders and Panthers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Islanders-Panthers Game 2 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Styles make fights, and it was the Islanders’ defensive style that took over and earned New York a Game 1 win. Trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau opened the scoring in the first period and Anthony Beauvillier added a power-play goal early in the second to give the Isles a 2-0 lead. Head coach Barry Trotz opted to start Semyon Varlamov in net over Thomas Greiss. The decision looked to be a good one, as Varlamov stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced in his first postseason start since 2014 with the Avalanche.

The Islanders finished ninth in goals allowed per game in the regular season, and the story heading into this series was whether the high-flying Panthers offense would be able score at the pace they were used to. But it was New York’s defense that prevailed in Game 1.

The Isles held strong while playing with just five d-men after Johnny Boychuk left the game following an illegal check to the head from Mike Matheson. Boychuk did not take part in Monday’s skate. Trotz said that veteran Andy Greene and rookie Noah Dobson, both scratches on Saturday, will take warmups and one of them will play if Boychuk does not.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Tuesday, August 4, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Mike Tirico, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Islanders-Panthers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI leads series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN (Livestream)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

The Wraparound: Rangers ‘not doing enough’ as Hurricanes go for sweep

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• Take a look back at Monday’s action, which included an Andrei Svechnikov hat trick and the shorthanded Jets hanging on to even their series.

• One full week inside the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles and zero positive COVID-19 tests, reports the NHL.

• Ryan Reaves, Tyler Seguin, Robin Lehner, and Jason Dickinson all took a knee before the anthem on Tuesday.

Through two games, the Hurricanes have jumped on the Rangers early and forced them to chase. In Game 1, Jaccob Slavin needed just 61 seconds to open the scoring. Andrei Svechnikov started his run to the first postseason hat trick in franchise history 4:32 into Game 2. Carolina also scored twice in a span of 2:22 in the second period Monday, putting New York in “uncharted territory,” as defenseman Marc Staal put it.

The Rangers’ season could be over by tonight after Game 3 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream). The odds aren’t in their favor. According to the NHL, teams that win each of the first two games in a best-of-five series are 55-1 all-time.

“We need everybody in that room to be just a little bit smarter, a little bit more patient, work a little bit harder, win more wall battles,” said Rangers head coach David Quinn. “All those things add up. We did it probably for 20 minutes and then just when we got down 3-1, you could feel it on the bench. That’s not a feeling we’ve had very often since the turn of the calendar.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It’s hard to say if New York’s fate would be different had Igor Shesterkin been healthy enough to play the first two games. But goaltending aside, the Rangers have only scored once at even strength and have been losing the possession game badly (44%), per Natural Stat Trick.

“Between now and [Tuesday] night at eight o’clock, we have to learn that we can’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Quinn. “Our lack of patience is killing us right now. Was it better than it was [in Game 1]? Yeah, it was. But we didn’t come here to get incrementally better. We came here to win hockey games. We’re not doing enough.”

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 2: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (NYI lead series 1-0): Styles make fights, and it was the Islanders’ defensive style that took over and earned New York a Game 1 win. Trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau opened the scoring in the 1st period and Anthony Beauvillier added a power-play goal early in the second to give New York a 2-0 lead. Johnny Boychuk did not skate on Monday after taking a high hit from Mike Matheson. Andy Greene and Noah Dobson are options should Boychuk be unavailable.

Game 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (ARZ leads series 1-0): Will we see Pekka Rinne in net for Nashville? Perhaps. Head coach John Hynes wouldn’t disclose who will start Game 2. Meanwhile, the Coyotes know it’s a race to three wins, and there’s still plenty of work left. “To be honest, you’ve got to forget about that game,” said Rick Tocchet. “I know you can feel good about yourself, but sometimes when you feel too good about yourself, you get too comfortable.”

Game 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (CBJ leads series 1-0)Joonas Korpisalo got the nod over Elvis Merzlikins and shut out the Maple Leafs in Toronto in his postseason debut. He stopped 28 shots to record the first postseason shutout in Blue Jackets history. The low-scoring, defensive style played to the Blue Jackets’ strengths – only two teams allowed fewer goals per game in the regular season than Columbus. A tight game in the third period is also familiar to the Blue Jackets, as they were tied with Minnesota for most regular season wins when entering the third period tied (12).

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

Game 3: Flames vs. Jets, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (Series tied 1-1): After a gutsy Game 2 win, the Jets still aren’t saying anything on the statuses of Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine. Head coach Paul Maurice would only say “we’ll see how they come to the rink [Tuesday].” Calgary would like to see more success with the power play after an 0-for-6 performance Monday. They do need to be more disciplined as they’ve been shorthanded 13 times, the most in the postseason through three days.

Game 2: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:45 p.m. ET, USA Network; livestream – (MIN leads series 1-0): The final Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers saw the Wild handle the Canucks to the tune of a 3-0 victory. The Wild’s scoring leader had 14 goals over his final 18 games of the regular season and opened up their playoff tilt with a goal less than 3 minutes into the game, his first postseason goal as a member of the Wild.

WEDNESDAY’S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Game 3: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET (live look-in, NBCSN)
Round-robin: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET (live look-in, NBCSN)
Game 3: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning – 2 pts. (.657)
Flyers – 2 pts. (.645)
Capitals – 1 pts. (.652)
Bruins – 0 pts. (.714)

WEST
Avalanche – 2 pts. (.657)
Golden Knights – 2 pts. (.606)
Blues – 0 pts (.662)
Stars – 0 pts. (.594)

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Eastern Conference top seed round-robin preview
Penguins vs. Canadiens
Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Panthers
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Western Conference top seed round-robin preview
Jets vs. Flames
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Predators vs. Coyotes
Wild vs. Canucks

Penalties aplenty are common theme early in NHL playoffs

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The morning after Phillip Danault‘s first career three-penalty game, agitating Montreal teammate Brendan Gallagher turned to him and joked, ”I’m rubbing off on you.”

Judging from the first few days of the NHL’s restart, it looks as if Gallagher is rubbing off on a lot of players. Referees’ arms must be tired after calling 116 minor penalties through 12 games – an average of almost 10 that’s a 52% increase from the regular season.

Perhaps officials are seeing more in empty arenas without the distraction and noise of fans, though players and coaches in the midst of the parades to the penalty box have other theories.

They chalk it up to a combination of rust from months off and players’ natural adjustment to the standard of officiating that’s being set in the chase for the Stanley Cup.

”We’ve been off as long as any offseason or longer, and (referees are) just re-establishing their game,” Boston Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand said.

”I also think that guys are excited to get back on the ice and they’re running around and guys aren’t in the same control of their sticks and their bodies than maybe they are a month out from now. So, we’re all a little sloppy and more penalties come from that.”

Most are not penalties of aggression, aside from the majors handed out for the fights that have broken out. The most common in the first 11 are hooking, tripping and slashing with the odd holding or spearing thrown in.

”There’s been too many stick penalties,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. ”There’s been too many penalties with guys just reaching in and just poor habits with their sticks and defending details and they’re getting called for it.”

Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said there haven’t necessarily been complaints about inconsistent officiating because it’s pretty tight across the board.

Maybe some grumbling here or there about too many calls for the playoffs, but the obstruction and interference is what the NHL wanted to get out of the game years ago to create more offense.

”If the referees are calling it, they must be penalties,” Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault said. ”The refereeing has been fine. The guys, it’s not an easy job and they’re calling what they’re seeing.”

Several teams got a chance to witness the tight officiating on Day One of the playoffs, including 16 minor penalties being called in the first game back between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers. That helped some teams such as the Minnesota Wild and New York Islanders limit their disciplinary issues.

”I think everyone was watching those games, especially the early time games,” Minnesota forward Ryan Hartman said. ”A lot, a lot of penalties were being called and there wasn’t much getting by. I don’t know if it was more us keeping out of it or of them trying to send a message in the early games.”

The Hurricanes learned their lesson the hard way with 14 minor penalties through two games. They’re up 2-0 on the New York Rangers in the best-of-five qualifying round series anyway but understand this isn’t sustainable.

”Just can’t be careless with stick penalties,” Carolina forward Vincent Trocheck said. ”We can understand if you’re being physical or making plays and playing hard and you get a penalty, those are penalties that we’re willing to kill. The stick penalties are the ones that we really need to stay away from.”

By the second period of their Game 2 against the Calgary Flames, the Winnipeg Jets were cognizant of what captain Blake Wheeler said was a ”sensitivity” to games being called pretty tight. But the teams still combined for 14 penalties Tuesday afternoon.

It figures to think those numbers will come down as the playoffs move on and players get used to what a penalty is and isn’t.

”In a game or two, I think you’re going to see less penalties,” Tocchet said. ”I think you’re going to see guys adjust to it, plus the coaches are probably barking at players to be disciplined anyways.”