Roundtable: Playoff race excitement; Marleau’s Hall of Fame case

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Which divisional race for the final one or two playoff spots are you most excited to watch?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: In all honesty, the Central Division race between the Predators and Stars might end up being the only race that actually goes “down to the wire,” so that battle wins by default. The two teams are only scheduled to meet once more this season, so at least the Predators and Stars carry decent odds of making this a truly neck-and-neck race. It’s not the worst battle, either, as both the Predators and Stars aren’t far removed from runs to the Stanley Cup Final.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: The Central is the most interesting as a division, period, because the teams are the tightest. The top of the division have the most intense games in the league night in and night out, and for the final spot, there’s so much at stake. It feels like Dallas is going to take that final spot with the way they’ve been playing and their games in hand, but hey, we all counted Nashville out before and they came back here. It should be fascinating to see unfold.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: It has to be the North. The season was supposed to end on May 7 in the original schedule but now due to COVID, Calgary and Vancouver complete the season with three games ending on May 19. The Flames are four points behind Montreal for fourth and while Vancouver is  eight back but have five games in hand. If it comes down to the May 19th game (and the rest of the divisions have already started their playoffs) if will be quite exciting.

[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I’m pretty fascinated by the North and the potential for the Canucks to give us the story of the season. They’ve won three of five following their extended COVID-19 break and face 14 games in 22 days. Vancouver is now 10 points behind Montreal with five games in-hand, plus there’s also Calgary to deal with. The Flames are six points behind the fourth-place Habs and have played one game more than Montreal.

The Canucks blew a good chance to make up ground during Monda’s loss to Ottawa. They have one more with the Senators and then face a difficult run with two against the Maple Leafs; five vs. the Oilers; and two against the Jets. It’s a tall task, but hopefully will be fun to watch.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: For me it is the west simply because neither Arizona or St. Louis has been able to take control of it. They are both playing some of their worst hockey of the season right now. St. Louis has more games to make up ground, but have you looked at the teams they have to play? It is almost nothing but Vegas, Colorado, and Minnesota, while Arizona gets almost nothing but Los Angeles, San Jose, and Anaheim. In the end the reward for the team that wins that spot is a first-round matchup against Colorado or Vegas. Congratulations for that! 

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’m keying in on the West Division, purely because none of the challengers seem to want to make a move. As of Tuesday, the final playoff spot is St. Louis’, but Arizona is right behind them. Winless weekends for the Sharks and Kings may have put them out of contention for good.

[NHL Power Rankings: Golden Knights on top; Playoff races to watch]

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Patrick Marleau is a Hall of Famer: Yay or nay?

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Yes. People can be real gatekeeper-y about the Hall of Fame based on their own head canon of who is good enough or whatever, but based on all the real evidence he’s a HOF caliber player. Anytime you break a Gordie Howe record that feels like an automatic, like getting 3,000 hits in baseball or something. My basis of the Hall of Fame has always been, can you tell the history of the sport, this era of the sport, without this guy? If you can’t, then they’re in. By that mark, Marleau having the games played record puts him in, but again, a more factual answer looking at reality would lead us to a “yes” conclusion as well.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Based on who’s in the IRL HOF, rather than the callous, selective one that lives in our minds? Yes, he’s a no-brainer. There are players in the Hockey Hall of Fame who are less accomplished than Marleau. Breaking Gordie Howe’s games played record is the cherry on top. And you know what? That’s great, because Marleau’s been a good-to-great player for an almost unfathomably long stretch. As far as I can tell, Marleau’s a good guy, too. Works for me.

[Connor McDavid’s push for 100: What he needs to do]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: While may not have any major hardware to his name, Marleau should end up having a plaque in the Hall of Fame someday. He’s the owner of the NHL’s all-time games played record, and has over 500 goals (566) and 1,000 points (1,197). Marleau has played 23 years in the league and this season will be the first time he won’t hit double digits in goals.

Marleau also has the international resume to help his case with golds at two Olympics, the IIHF World Championship, and World Cup of Hockey with Canada.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I have zero doubt that he is going to get in eventually. He might have a little bit of a wait when he does retire, but he is getting in. There seem to be a handful of factors to get in. Longevity. Milestones. Playing on a great team. If you have two of those three, you have a great chance. He not only has the games played mark, but he is also way high on the ironman streak list and also has over 550 goals and is three points away from 1,200 points. There are only 24 other players in league history that have at least 550 goals and 1,200 points. Out of that group, 23 are already in the Hall of Fame. The 24th player is Alex Ovechkin, who will be in the Hall of Fame.

Honestly the only thing Marleau’s career is missing is the Stanley Cup (he had the Stanley Cup Final appearance with San Jose back in the 2015-16 season) but he has enough games played, goals, points and durability to get in. He is one of those players that was never an all-time great, or the best player of his era, but he was good enough for long enough that he is in. 

[Stunning numbers: Patrick Marleau NHL record edition]

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Patrick Marleau is a Hall of Famer. Longevity is an important part as so many players are unable to compete into their 40’s. Don’t remember what he has done of late but rather his whole career. He was selected second overall and made the Sharks as a just turned 18-year-old. He had some great years and although he never won the Stanley Cup, he was good enough to win Olympic Gold twice with Canada, both in 2010 and 2014. He has 566 career goals and 1,197 points and in combination with his lengthy career, everything combined makes him a Hall of Famer.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Yes, I think he has to be. Despite Marleau’s all-time games played record and 566 (and counting) career goals, at no point was he ever among the handful of best wingers in the NHL while he played. No championships, no individual awards, never scored more than 86 points in a season. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t worthy. His case reminds me of another Bay Area athlete known for longevity: Frank Gore, the third-leading rusher in NFL history. If you compile for long enough, at some point that can’t be ignored. Yes, a HHOF induction would be more of a lifetime achievement award than anything, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rivals Crosby and Ovechkin relish being All-Star teammates

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SUNRISE, Fla. – Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have played dozens of regular-season and playoff games against each other since breaking into the NHL together in 2005.

The longtime rivals and respective captains of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have also shared the ice at All-Star Games before. But with each superstar in his mid-30s, they know this trip could be their last together.

They took advantage of it, with Ovechkin setting up Crosby for two goals Saturday in the lone game of the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament their Metropolitan Division team got to play.

“I think we have fun to play together, not against each other,” Ovechkin said, flashing his gap-toothed smile. “Right now, we was on the same team, and it was pretty special, pretty good moment.”

Crosby, who also had the secondary assist on Ovechkin’s goal, did not expect to get the puck back. That’s not unreasonable given Ovechkin has built a career on scoring and is only 82 goals back of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL career record.

“I was thinking I just did my job: gave it to him,” said Crosby, whose career numbers are so close to Ovechkin’s that he has just five more points overall. “I thought he was just going finish it, but he was kind enough to send me a couple back. We had some nice goals there.”

Not enough to win the 3-on-3 semifinal against the Atlantic, which beat the Central in the final. Ovechkin lamented not scoring more and took some jabs at his goalie teammates for a day: fellow Russians Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers and Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders.

“Obviously goalie could play better,” Ovechkin said.

Crosby and Ovechkin being together at All-Star weekend for the first time since 2018 was one of the themes of the weekend, given how they shared the stage as faces of the NHL for much of their careers. But they don’t want this to be a Sid and Ovi swan song and could do this again as soon as next year when the festivities are in Toronto.

“You try to go out there have fun and stay in the moment,” Crosby said. “Hopefully, it’s not our last one. That’s the best way to approach it.”

HOMETOWN HEROICS

The introductions for Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk were saved for last.

And of course, the two Florida Panthers stars, representing the Atlantic Division, delivered in their home arena.

“We play regular-season and playoff games here, but with this event, it’s even more special to be here representing the Florida Panthers,” Barkov said.

Tkachuk was clearly comfortable playing in the same arena where has amassed 66 points (sixth in the NHL) this season with the Panthers. He was named All-Star MVP after his seven points (four goals, three assists) Saturday, including a goal and an assist in the Atlantic Division’s 7-5 win over the Central Division to take the All-Star game title.

“To be honest, I really didn’t care about anything other than just representing my team,” Tkachuk said, “and it’s a big honor to be one of the representatives, along with Barky, to be the host city. Without everybody saying it, it kind of revolves around us a little bit with having the home crowd on our side and doing the big skills and starting the game having the fans basically just cheering for us.”

Tkachuk had a hat trick and a pair of assists in the Atlantic squad’s semifinal game against the Metropolitan division – tying a single-game points record for the 3-on-3 All-Star format. Two of those goals were assisted by his Panthers teammate to give their squad a win 10-6 and advance to face the Central division the final.

By the time Barkov and Tkachuk came out for the All-Star game final, “Let’s go Panthers!” cheers were being belted throughout FLA Live Arena.

Barkov, the beloved Panther in his 10th season, has 14 goals this year and 33 assists. He has 234 career goals and 600 points.

BROTHERLY LOVE

Brothers Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk have played against each other plenty over the years. But with both players starting for the Atlantic division, they got to experience playing together as the 11th set of brothers to be All-Star teammates.

The brothers each had a goal in Saturday’s semifinal game between the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions. And Brady assisted on his brother’s goal in the final against the Central division.

“We’ve always dreamt of playing with each other one way or the other,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “We thought that the best chance would be a Team USA thing at one point because I was in the West forever and he was in the Atlantic, so we never really thought this was a possibility.”

Matthew, drafted in 2016 by the Calgary Flames, is a two-time All-Star with 177 career goals and 448 points.

Brady, the younger Tkachuk sibling, was drafted in 2018 by the Ottawa Senators and has 110 career goals and 243 points.

Both were All-Stars back in 2020 in their hometown St. Louis. Brady represented the Atlantic division, while Matthew represented the Pacific squad.

WEATHER WOES

It was 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) outside FLA Live Arena when the All-Star 3 on-3 tournament started – more than 50 degrees warmer than 2024 host Toronto. That doesn’t mean this year’s event didn’t have a weather issue.

The NHL All-Star Beach Festival – which had areas where fans could test their hockey skills, get a photo with the Stanley Cup and check out a Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit, among other things – couldn’t open on Saturday.

Rain in the morning delayed the opening on Fort Lauderdale Beach, and then 40 mph (64 kilometers per hour) wind gusts later in the day forced the NHL into keeping it closed and calling off a watch party for the All-Star Game.

It was open Thursday and Friday.

MVP Matthew Tkachuk lifts Atlantic to NHL All-Star Game win

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SUNRISE, Fla. – Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk was right at home at the NHL All-Star Game.

Again.

Detroit’s Dylan Larkin had a hat trick, Toronto’s Mitch Marner had three assists and the Atlantic Division topped the Central Division 7-5 in the All-Star Game final on Saturday.

All-Star Game MVP Matthew Tkachuk – playing alongside his brother Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators – had seven points on the day, after a five-point outburst in a semifinal win over the Metropolitan Division. Larkin had five goals in the Atlantic’s two games.

“We wanted to get a win for the home crowd, the fans,” Montreal’s Nick Suzuki said. “They did a good job of cheering on the Atlantic Division. We just wanted to put on a good show for them.”

And for the MVP, winning in front of Panthers fans meant more than just winning.

“It’s been an honor to play in front of them this whole year and it’s great that the other players in the league can see what a great place this is to play,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “I’m as happy as can be here.”

Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Dallas’ Jason Robertson, Colorado teammates Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen all had goals for the Central in the final. Makar also had two assists.

It was the first time the Atlantic won the All-Star Game, after six previous tries in the divisional format. The 11 players – nine skaters and two goalies – on the Atlantic roster split $1 million for the win.

“It was so much fun,” said Larkin, who had five goals in the two games. “I’m proud of how we won it. What a great group of guys … it was just a great weekend.”

Matthew Tkachuk has now been on the winning team in both of his All-Star appearances, and both times, he enjoyed the comforts of home. He helped the Pacific win the 2020 All-Star title in St. Louis, his hometown and one of the many spots that his father – Keith Tkachuk, who was in the crowd Saturday – played during his career.

“I’ve been very fortunate, the two that I’ve been in that I know the ins and the outs of everything that goes on away from the rink,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “It just made it so much more comfortable for me and extra special.”

And this one truly had home-ice advantage. Matthew Tkachuk – the former Calgary standout who picked Florida this past offseason, despite much speculation that he would be going to St. Louis – had three goals and two assists in the Atlantic’s 10-6 win over the Metropolitan in the second semifinal.

It was 3-0 Atlantic after the first half of the 20-minute final; all games under this All-Star format are 3-on-3, 20 minutes in length with a brief break after 10 minutes. The lead got to 4-0 early in the second half of the final, giving the Atlantic 10 consecutive goals; it trailed 6-4 in the semifinal before closing on a 6-0 run.

Larkin scored with 1:06 left to make it 6-2, the first of five goals in a frantic finish.

“It’s been a blast,” said Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who scored for the Atlantic with 36 seconds left to make it 7-3. “I met a lot of great people.”

NOTES: The NHL gets right back to play on Monday with six games, including a home game for Florida – meaning it’ll be a quick turnaround for the arena. … The Central Division is now the only one yet to win an All-Star Game in this format. The Pacific has three wins, the Metropolitan has three wins and now the Atlantic has one. … Florida was supposed to host this game in 2021, only to have it canceled by the pandemic. The Panthers hosted All-Star weekend in 2023. … Attendance was a sellout, 19,250.

SEMIFINAL 1: CENTRAL 6, PACIFIC 4

Keller had two goals and an assist, MacKinnon scored twice and the Central moved into the title matchup. St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and three assists for the Central. Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson had two goals, while San Jose’s Erik Karlsson and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid also scored for the Pacific.

SEMIFINAL 2: ATLANTIC 10, METROPOLITAN 6

The teams combined for a record-tying – in the 3-on-3 era, anyway – 16 goals. Matthew Tkachuk had three goals and two assists, tying a single-game record for the format. Larkin scored twice and Brady Tkachuk had a goal and three assists for the Atlantic. Columbus’ Johnny Gaudreau had three goals for the Metropolitan. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby had two goals and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin had the other.

UP NEXT

The next NHL All-Star weekend is Feb. 2-3, 2024 in Toronto.

Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

“I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.