Bubble fatigue cited as mental challenge during NHL playoffs

The hotels might be posh, their amenities and service first rate, and yet life inside the NHL’s two playoff bubbles isn’t exactly glamorous.

Having spent nearly a month cooped up at the tunnel-connected hotel-arena complex in Edmonton, Alberta, Rick Bowness acknowledged there’s times he’s had to coax himself to step outside to bask in the sun and breathe in some fresh, non-filtered air.

”If people think living in a bubble is great, it’s tough. It’s mentally tough. And everyone’s making the best of it.” the Stars interim coach said after Dallas advanced to the second round with Game 6 victory over Calgary last week.

”It’s not your typical playoffs. It’s not, where, OK, you play, you jump in your car and you go home or whatever. It’s none of that. It’s play, go back to your room,” Bowness said, beginning to laugh. ”This isn’t as easy as you think it is.”

Bowness emphasized he wasn’t complaining, but simply noting the challenges that come with the NHL’s most unique of playoffs, which haven’t yet reached the halfway mark in a bid to award the Stanley Cup by early October – or sooner.

”Listen,” he said. ”Until you live in this, you have no idea what we’re doing, what we’re going through.”

The potential for NHL bubble fatigue is real.

The close confines, daily COVID-19 testing, lack of freedom to venture beyond the security fences surrounding hotels and arenas in Edmonton and Toronto, and the separation from family can weigh heavily on everyone. Teams have access to outdoor stadiums in both cities, and the NHL has also arranged golf outings on off days, in which players are bused to and from the facilities with no access to those outside the bubble.

”It’s hard when you’re in that type of environment because it’s almost like you’re in prison,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman after Chicago was eliminated by Colorado in five games in the first round.

”When the pandemic hit, you could still leave your house, you could walk outside and get some fresh air,” Bowman added. ”But here, I think it’s the mental toll that you’re kind of trapped. You can’t go anywhere. And over time, it does start to get to you.”

Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet noted the bubble-related challenges during his team’s three-week stay, which ended with back-to-back 7-1 losses to Colorado.

”It’s basically monotonous every day. We had two-and-half blocks with nothing to really do other than hockey. This is where mental will comes in,” Tocchet said. ”The teams that go far, obviously you got to have the talent. But you also have to have the strong mental fortitude to get through that for sure.”

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press that the league is ”actively trying to minimize the length” of the playoffs ”in part due to the dynamics and constraints of ‘bubble life.”’

That was evident Friday, when the NHL scheduled the second round of the playoffs to open before the first round was complete. And with the conference and Cup finals set for Edmonton, the two East finalists will likely have only two days to acclimate to their new surroundings upon traveling from Toronto.

”We will continue to pursue all ‘move up’ opportunities aggressively as we go forward,” Daly wrote.

He added the NHL is still seeking approval from health authorities on whether family members will be allowed enter the bubble before or during the conference finals.

In noting the bubble challenges, Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand said players can also use them as motivation.

”We’re all sacrificing to be here, so I think the drive is there to want to make it all worth it,” Marchand said.

”So when you get on the ice, you want to win, because otherwise this whole thing is for nothing,” he said. ”It’ll be worth it if we win. So it’s that fear of losing, I guess, that kind of drains you mentally, and being away from the family.”

Teams arrived at their hub cities on July 26, before playing an exhibition game, followed by a two-part preliminary round. The bottom 16 teams competed in a best-of-five elimination series, while each conference’s top four teams played a round-robin tournament to determine seeding.

The first round began on Aug 11 and lasted just 11 days.

There were no series sweeps in the first round for just the fourth time since the 2005 lockout, with no series going the maximum seven games – the first time that’s happened in the first round since 2001.

Overall, a combined 43 games were played, which matched the second-lowest total since 41 games were needed to complete the first round in 2000.

Though it’s unclear what those numbers reflect, Bowness said the notable momentum swings within a series or even a game were ”absolutely” the result of life in the bubble.

Columbus and Toronto each rallied from three-goal deficits during their preliminary round series. Dallas did the same in a series-deciding 7-3 win over the Flames.

”The way we’re living and playing, that’s going to lead to a lot of emotional swings,” Bowness said. ”Give our guys credit, they battled back.”

In a bid to break the monotony, Bowness scheduled a mandatory fun day for the Stars at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on Friday.

”We need to get out of the hotel. We need a mental break,” he said.

The players repaid Bowness with a 5-3 series-opening win over Colorado a day later. The only drawback was Bowness and his staff couldn’t join in because they had to spend Friday at the hotel prepping for the Avalanche.

”It would’ve been a good day for us to get out with them, but hey, that didn’t happen,” Bowness said. ”And we knew when we came into this bubble, you roll with the punches.”

Stamkos makes brief return as Lightning dominate Stars in Game 3 win

Lightning Game 3
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Steven Stamkos made a very brief appearance for the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

He returned to the lineup for the first time in seven months, scored a goal on his only shot, and then spent the rest of the game sitting on the bench, presumably because he was still not 100%.

But that one goal? It helped get the Lightning rolling early in what became a 5-2 rout, giving them a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars.

Game 4 is Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

The night began with Stamkos being the big story, and in a way he still kind of is in the aftermath. Not only for his early goal, but also for the fact he managed to play just a handful of shifts before leaving again. It certainly creates more questions as to whether or not he will be able to go in Game 4 or later in the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But while Stamkos was not able to continue, Tampa’s other star players continued to dominate.

Each player on the top line (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat) finished with a goal and an assist, while Victor Hedman continued his stellar postseason by scoring his 10th goal. That is of the highest marks ever for a defenseman in the playoffs. Paul Coffey (12) and Brian Leetch (11) are the only defenders to ever score more goals in a single postseason.

Hedman also made a fantastic defensive play early in the first period — when the game was still tied 0-0 — by chasing Stars’ speedster Denis Gurianov down from behind and disrupting his shot attempt on a breakaway.

Tampa really started to take the game over during a completely lopsided second period that saw them score three goals and own a commanding 21-4 shots on goal edge. The Lightning had 27 total shot attempts while allowing just 9 to the Stars.

That offensive outburst also resulted in the Stars pulling starting goalie Anton Khudobin at the start of the third period. It was one of his worst games of the postseason as he stopped just 24 out of 29 shots.

There is still a long way to go in this series but this is starting to trend in a tough direction for the Stars with back-to-back losses. It is not just the fact that they lost those games that is concerning, but the way Tampa Bay has been able to jump out to huge leads (3-0 in Game 2, 5-1 in Game 3) and just look like a vastly superior team for extended periods of time.

The Lightning are the arguably the most talented team in the league on paper and when they get rolling like they have at times over the past two games it is going to take near perfection — with great goaltending — to slow them down. The Stars fell short in both areas on Wednesday. They have to figure out how to get back closer to that level before Game 4 on Friday night.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
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 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
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)

Steven Stamkos scores in return to Lightning lineup

Stamkos Game 3
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For the first time in nearly seven months Steven Stamkos was back in the lineup for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

He wasted no time in making an impact.

Just 6:58 into the first period, and on his third shift of the night, Stamkos scored to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead over the Dallas Stars. It is the first Stanley Cup Final goal of his career and it came on his very first shot this postseason.

Here is a look at the play.

Stamkos had been sidelined since the end of February due to a lower-body injury and surgery to repair a core muscle injury.

He has been with the team throughout the entire 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs but has not yet been able to return to the lineup. That changed on Wednesday when he started the game on the fourth line with Cedric Paquette and Patrick Maroon. He replaced Carter Verhaeghe on that line.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But while he was able to score early in the game, Stamkos did not take a single shift during the final seven minutes of the first period and was not on the team’s bench for the start of the second period. He eventually returned to the bench but was not taking a regular shift with his line.

Stamkos was having another monster season for the Lightning — recording 66 points (29 goals, 37 assists) in 57 regular season games — before his injury knocked him out of the lineup. Injuries have been an issue for Stamkos throughout his career and this was just the latest one to knock him out of the lineup for a significant period of time through the playoffs. His return on Wednesday is reminiscent of when he missed all but one game of 2015-16 Stanley Cup Playoffs, returning for the Lightning’s Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Final.

He had a 15-game point streak going at the time of his injury this season and with his goal on Wednesday has now recorded at least one point in each of his past 16 games played.

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.

Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tampa scored three goals in the first 15:16 minutes of the game, including two on the power play, and held off a late push by Dallas to win 3-2 and even the Stanley Cup Final at one game apiece. Brayden Point opened the scoring by netting his 10th of the postseason and Ondrej Palat and Kevin Shattenkirk each scored to give the Lightning a three-goal lead they would not relinquish.

Since the beginning of their First Round series against Columbus, the Lightning are a perfect 5-0 following a loss this postseason. Tampa last lost consecutive games on March 8th and 10th – its final two games before the pause. Andrei Vasilevskiy has not lost consecutive starts since dropping three straight from Feb. 20-25.

After going 0/14 on the power play in their previous four games, the Lightning scored twice on the man-advantage in Game 2, with both tallies coming in the first period. Point and Palat scored power-play goals 2:59 apart in the first period in the win. Dallas took three penalties in the first 14 minutes of play and the Lightning were able to take control by scoring twice.

Tyler Seguin, who is making his third appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, has struggled mightily in the 2020 playoffs. The 28- year-old has gone 11 consecutive games without a goal and has just one assist over that span. His last goal came in Game 3 of the Second Round vs. Colorado.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Wednesday, September 23, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
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 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
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