Puncher’s chance: Fighting is up during unique NHL playoffs

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ season was hanging by a thread from one of Jason Spezza‘s gloves when he dropped them to the ice to fight Dean Kukan.

”I just tried to spark the guys, just trying to show some desperation and have some push-back,” Spezza said after Toronto’s emotional comeback victory against Columbus he played a substantial role in. ”Without the crowd you don’t have that, so just trying to create some emotion.”

Spezza versus Kukan was fight No. 8 in the first week of the NHL playoffs, almost triple the total from the entire 2019 postseason combined.

Fighting has decreased drastically in recent years, especially in the playoffs when every shift matters, but the unique circumstances of hockey’s restart – several months off, empty arenas and more intense best-of-five series – have ratcheted up the fisticuffs in the battle for the Stanley Cup.

”Guys are full of energy, and there’s guys walking the line a little bit more,” New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. ”In a short series, I think guys are looking to change momentum. … When a guy’s coming at you and intense, you’re being intense back, and when those two sparks collide, sometimes there’s fire. We’ve seen a couple of scraps and some have been game-changing.”

Spezza’s bout changed Game 4 of Toronto-Columbus, much like Justin Williams fighting Ryan Strome less than three minutes into the first NHL game since March set a tone for Carolina’s sweep of the New York Rangers.

Sometimes it hasn’t worked out so well, such as Winnipeg defenseman Nathan Beaulieu challenging 6-foot-3, 231-pound Calgary forward Milan Lucic 2 seconds into the game that wound up being the Jets’ last of the season.

”You understand what Nate’s trying to do: He’s trying to show that they’re ready to play and they’re not going to go down without a fight,” Lucic said. ”For me, you just want to show that you’re ready to play and you’re not going to back down from their push, no matter if it’s a fight or whatever.”

Four months of built-up testosterone might explain some of this, though the reasons behind each fight have varied. Jets captain Blake Wheeler fought Matthew Tkachuk after the hard-nosed Flames winger injured Mark Scheifele on a hit that was either a terrible accident or a ”filthy, dirty kick,” depending on who’s being asked.

Wheeler conceded he didn’t even see the play but felt the need to defend a teammate. Five-foot-nine Boston defenseman Torey Krug did the same after Tampa Bay forward Blake Coleman hit Brandon Carlo in open ice when those division rivals met in a seeding game.

Fight first, ask questions later.

”You see a lot of fights right after good hits, clean hits, hard hits, and you see a lot of them after questionable hits and you see a lot of them after obviously head shots,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”That’s become the norm a bit in hockey now where players kind of react to a hit that they don’t see 100 percent of it.”

In other cases, emotions just boil over. It happened twice in four games between Minnesota and Vancouver, including the opening minutes of Game 4 when Ryan Hartman and Jake Virtanen squared off. Hartman did his best to get under opponents’ skin from the series opener when he grabbed Canucks forward Micheal Ferland‘s stick while sitting on the bench.

There weren’t a whole lot of friendships forged as the Canucks eliminated the Wild in four games, or almost anywhere in the qualifying round. Old friends Tampa Bay and Washington renewed pleasantries when Yanni Gourde fought T.J. Oshie, and that bad blood won’t be forgotten if they meet later in the playoffs.

Rivalries will continue to emerge, so don’t expect the gloves to stay on as the stakes get higher.

”Guys are playing the game purely and for the love of the game and you see how much they love it and how much they want to win,” Calgary coach Geoff Ward said. ”Saying that, there could be a potential for more. But I think that’s just an indication of how much guys are willing to do whatever it takes to shift momentum in a hockey game and you try to help get a win.”

‘Black Aces’ in bubble have toughest job in NHL playoffs

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EDMONTON, Alberta — When Joel Kiviranta capped a hat trick by scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime in his playoff debut in the second round, the young Finn had one real desire.

”I hope I get more games,” Kiviranta said.

Kiviranta hasn’t come out of the Dallas Stars lineup since, and he’s emblematic of the impact a player can have in the fight for the Stanley Cup after practicing but not playing for weeks on end. They’re part of the taxi squad of extras called the ”Black Aces,” a 19th century poker term brought into hockey by Hall of Famer Eddie Shore 90 years ago.

They’re woven into the fabric of the NHL playoffs, and these players have never had it tougher, given the confines of the bubble and no guarantee they’ll get into a game. They’ll gear up to get on the ice to join in the fun when the Cup is handed out, which could be as soon as Saturday night.

”They’re the guys that never get talked about and probably have the most difficult job in this bubble,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”To be practicing and working and doing all the other things to stay ready and not getting in, it’s a mental grind.”

Some have grinded it out and been rewarded with a chance to shine on the big stage. In the Cup final alone, the Lightning got defenseman Jan Rutta back for his first game since Aug. 5, and the Stars plugged in Nick Caamano to replaced injured forward Blake Comeau.

Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos returning doesn’t really count, even though he hadn’t played since February and was practicing with his teammates. Dallas may have to dip into its extras for Game 5 on Saturday night after Roope Hintz was injured in Game 4 a night earlier.

Caamano hadn’t played since March 11, and that game was in the minors. But he tried to stay as ready as he could.

”It was weird going through your game day routine and stuff, but we knew as ‘Black Aces,’ you’ve got to be ready to go if your name’s called,” Caamano said. ”A lot of guys in that room have battled hard all playoffs here and you don’t want to come in and disappoint them, so you want to give your best foot forward.”

Before that opportunity arises, it’s a lot of thankless work practicing and biding time. Rutta watched a lot of hockey while rehabbing an injury, and tried to stay in shape and ”not go completely mad” inside the bubble.

”When you’re a black ace in a regular playoff year, you’re at least with friends and family and all those things you get to enjoy while the ride’s going on,” Cooper said. ”Here, it’s just different. And so you make sure that you have these guys feeling involved because it’s a really tough job.”

Stars assistant coaches have tried to mix up practice routine to break up the monotony.

It has worked. Kiviranta scored a big goal in the Western Conference clincher and then again in Game 1 of the final.

”Our coaches have done a great job keeping them fresh on the ice with different drills and games and doing everything we can to keep them as fresh as is possible mentally and physically,” Dallas interim coach Rick Bowness said. ”I give those kids credit, and we needed them. They were ready to go. Your hat to them and our coaches, who are doing a great job with them.”

The other challenge is making extra players feel like part of the team, even if they’re not contributing to the results. Caamano said his teammates did a great job with that, involving him in card games and other activities.

And these guys could also play a major role, either in these playoffs or the future.

”What I’ve told our players is, ‘You may not feel like you’re helping right this moment,”’ Cooper said. ”They are helping and they may be helping the organization in a depth way today, but tomorrow they might be in our lineup. And so getting this experience I think is great for them.”

Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Saturday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

In by far the most competitive and only back-and-forth game this series, the Lightning came out on top in the first overtime game of this Cup Final. Tampa trailed 2-0 and 3-2 before taking its first lead of the game when Alex Killorn scored 6:41 into the third period to make the score 4-3. Joe Pavelski tied things back up with 8:25 left in regulation, forcing each club’s first overtime game since their respective Conference Finals series-clinchers. Offseason signee Kevin Shattenkirk, playing on his fifth team and in his first Cup Final, then netted the winner, 6:34 into the extra session to move the Lightning one win from their second-ever Stanley Cup (2004).

Tampa can become the first team in the NHL expansion era (1967- present) to win the Stanley Cup the season after being swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season, the Lightning tied the NHL regular-season record with 62 wins but lost four straight games to the Blue Jackets in the opening round for an early playoff exit. Over the last six years, no team has more playoff wins or Conference Finals appearances than Tampa, and now they’re one victory away from their first title in the Jon Cooper era.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Pat Maroon, who the Lightning signed in the offseason, is the only player on the team who has won a Cup and he can become the third player in the expansion era (since 1967) to win a title in consecutive seasons with different teams after helping the Blues win their first-ever championship last year (Cory Stillman 2004 with Tampa and 2006 with Carolina … Claude Lemieux 1995 with New Jersey and 1996 with Colorado).

Historically, a 3-1 series lead in the Cup Final has almost guaranteed an eventual Cup victory, with teams converting 33 times in 34 total tries. The only time a team blew a 3-1 lead in the Cup Final was in 1942, when Detroit lost to Toronto after leading the series 3-0.

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, September 26, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

Stars will not have Roope Hintz, Blake Comeau for Game 5

Stars Game 5
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The Dallas Stars will be without several key forwards for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC, Livestream)  as they look to fight off elimination and extend their season.

Coach Rick Bowness announced that forward Roope Hintz will not be available for Saturday’s game after he was injured in Game 4 on Friday night.

Hintz logged just five minutes of ice-time in the Stars’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is a pretty significant blow to the Stars’ lineup, not only because Hintz finished the season as one of their leading goal-scorers (19 goals in only 60 games), but because they are already dealing with injuries to a couple of key depth players.

In addition to Hintz, the Stars will again be without forwards Radek Faksa and Blake Comeau.

Comeau has missed the past two games in the Stanley Cup Final, while Faksa has been sidelined since the middle of the Western Conference Final.

What really makes this an issue for the Stars is Comeau and Faksa were two of their most used forwards on the penalty kill during the season, with Hintz also playing a minor role in that spot.

Tampa Bay’s power play has caught fire in the Stanley Cup Final, scoring on six of its 15 opportunities. Taking those three out of the lineup is not going to help the Stars’ chances of containing the Lightning power play.

More: Stars need one more improbable run to complete improbable season

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1. (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2. (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 4 [OT]. (recap)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 3-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)