Ian Cole

Pavelski makes quick Game 7 impact, MacKinnon shakes off injury

1 Comment

Joe Pavelski‘s return for Game 7 has already proven to be huge for the San Jose Sharks. Meanwhile, the Avalanche lost Nathan MacKinnon for a chunk of the first, but the news for them isn’t as dreary as it initially seemed.

Pavelski’s fingerprints were all over the first period. He set the tone, scoring the opening goal on a deflection just 5:57 minutes into the game.

He also got the primary assist on Tomas Hertl‘s goal to make the game 2-0 and drew a penalty from Ian Cole. So it’s fair to say that Game 7 could have gotten off to a very different start if Pavelski wasn’t able to make his series debut.

The Avalanche weren’t nearly as fortunate early on. Less than two minutes into the game, MacKinnon ran into the boards during a power play and immediately left with what looked like a shoulder or arm injury.

Amazingly, he was able to return late into the first. We can’t know if he’s playing hurt or not, but for what it’s worth, he still managed to come close to scoring. To make matters better for the Avalanche, Mikko Rantanen scored in the dying seconds of the period, so at least they went into the intermission down by just a goal.

This is shaping up to be a wild Game 7.

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Youthful Girard-Makar pairing playing like experienced vets for Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche didn’t make a big splash at the 2019 NHL trade deadline (unless you wanted to count Derick Brassard as a big splash) but they did get some significant help for their postseason run during Round 1 when Cale Makar, the 2018 No. 4 overall pick and 2019 Hobey Bakey Award Winner, decided to turn pro and sign his entry-level deal.

It has not taken him long to start looking like the real deal and become a significant part of the Avs’ rapidly improving young core.

Entering Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the San Jose Sharks Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), Makar has already recorded six points in his first nine NHL games and has been even more impressive with the eye test given his confidence, skating, and willingness to make plays with the puck. He just looks exciting, and so far he has the results to back it up. He has been sheltered a little with his overall ice-time and with a lot of offensive zone starts, but he is still only 20 years old and getting what is literally his first taste of NHL action on the biggest possible stage.

It is a huge jump and a big test, and so far he is passing it.

What stands out about the Avs’ usage of Makar against the Sharks is that even though they are sheltering him in terms of where they start him on faceoffs, they are not sheltering him with a veteran partner.

Instead, they have been using him over the past four games almost exclusively with their other young standout defender, fellow 20-year-old Samuel Girard.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is not only the youngest defense pair any team has used this postseason, Makar and Girard are just two of the six defensemen who have appeared in a playoff game this season who are age 20 or younger. And they are not only playing together, they have been great together. In more than 56 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together against the Sharks the Avalanche have scored four goals with the Makar-Girard duo on the ice and are dominating territorially, controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger chances.

Some of that, again, is due to the deployment as they are being put into situations where they are expected to create offense, and it is very clear how head coach Jared Bednar wants to utilize his three defense pairings. The Tyson BarrieNikita Zadorov and Erik JohnsonIan Cole duos are getting almost all of the defensive zone starts and being leaned on in any defensive situations, which is very understandable given the inexperience of the third pairing.

The Makar-Girard duo, on the other hand, is almost always being put into offensive situations. But there is still something to be said for taking advantage of those situations, especially when it is two of the youngest players in the playoffs playing alongside one other.

What has to be exciting about this for the Avalanche is that no matter what happens in Game 7, or in the rest of the playoffs should they advance, these two will be together for the foreseeable future as a key part of this core’s development and the foundation of their blue line.

The Avalanche are an extremely young team in terms of who is carrying the workload this season and are positioned to become one of the dominant teams in the Western Conference given their current star power at the top of the lineup, the salary cap space they have at their disposal, and the fact they have two first-round draft picks in 2019, including another No. 4 overall pick thanks to the Matt Duchene trade, which was the deal where they acquired Girard.

MORE: Avs in position to build on current success

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.

Women’s players hope NHL steps in to create new league

AP Images
14 Comments

Meghan Duggan need only look around sports to get excited about what an NHL-run women’s hockey league might look like.

The NBA did it with the WNBA. Soccer leagues in Europe and the U.S. have done it. And that was enough for the 2018 U.S. Olympic gold-medal winning captain and more than 200 fellow players to take a leap of faith by pledging not to play in North America this year to try to get to the point where there is a single, economically viable professional league.

”History has told all of us that startup women’s professional leagues thrive and are very successful when working with an existing professional league,” Duggan said. ”That’s definitely something I think that we would be excited about. But this is just the first step in getting there.”

The effective boycott of North America’s only remaining women’s hockey league, the National Women’s Hockey League, sent shockwaves through the sport.

Now comes the big question: Will it work?

”I think they have a better chance of succeeding than some of the men’s unions have,” said Matt DelDuca, a labor and employment attorney with Pepper Hamilton. ”Strikes have not been very effective in professional sports for players because it’s hard to maintain them long term. Women’s professional sports are a little different because of the economics. I think there is a tremendous opportunity for them.”

It’s an opportunity equipment giant Bauer Hockey wants to be a part of. Vice president of marketing Mary-Kay Messier said the National Hockey League ”must be in an ownership position” for any women’s league.

”I really do believe and we at Bauer believe that that is the only sustainable, viable option for ownership,” Messier said.

The NHL has given $50,000 annually each to the NWHL and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League that recently shut down . It has invited a handful of top players to participate in its All-Star skills competition and invited stakeholders to various meetings.

University at Buffalo sports law professor Nellie Drew wondered what happens next.

”The question is going to be whether the economic demand will be there to drive this,” Drew said. ”Right now in 2019, do the women’s hockey players have the economic leverage to make an effective stand on this position? Maybe not. But do they have the capacity to drive public sentiment strongly enough that it will make the (NHL) consider it? Yeah, I think they do.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league backs ”the concept of professional women’s hockey and elite women’s hockey players having the ability to play the game at a professional level,” but it is too early to commit to a bigger role.

”What is going on now with the kind of shut down of the CWHL and now the this boycott of the NWHL it’s not ideal for anybody,” he said. ”We’ll see how it all plays out. We certainly want to preserve the ability of women players to play at the highest level. So it’s really too early to say how that is going to play out and how the NHL’s role will or won’t be going forward. We’re going to have to be observers.”

The U.S. women’s national team in 2017 threatened to skip the world championships in Michigan and wound up getting an improved benefits package from USA Hockey. Those players will now make $3,000-$4,000 a month with the ability to earn about $71,000 annually. They can make up to $129,000 in Olympic years with contributions from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It was a big boost for a group of women who were getting $1,000 a month for six months around the Olympics.

That situation is much different from trying to establish a league from scratch, with questions ranging from the business model to potential locations, sponsors and investors, player benefits and more. The NWHL said it was going ahead with next season and was offering improved salaries and a revenue-sharing deal with players, who nonetheless made their decision to sit out.

Skipping a season is a question female soccer players have faced many times as a labor tactic, said Megan Rapinoe, named to her third U.S. roster for the upcoming Women’s World Cup. The captain of Reign FC in the NWSL expressed support for her fellow female athletes.

”It’s sort of a last-resort tactic that is just the labor side of things (athletes are) sometimes forced to take,” Rapinoe said Friday. ”And I think you never want to, but I think you always have to be willing to if it gets to that point.”

Players have urged USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to become involved in helping set up the framework for a professional league. Critics have questioned why USA Hockey hasn’t done more on the women’s side, particularly when it provides support to the USHL, America’s top junior hockey league for males 20 and younger.

”While we’re certainly an interested party in the happenings on the professional side of the game, our priority is on continuing to grow the game at the grassroots level and enhancing and supporting our national team program,” USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said in a prepared statement.

As for backing the USHL, USA Hockey has made the distinction the junior league is for amateur athletes, and not professionals.

Hockey Canada drew criticism for failing to respond to the CWHL’s last-minute plea for assistance just before the league announced in March it would shut down. The organization has not responded to a request for comment this week.

No one believes a long-term league will materialize overnight, but U.S. Olympian Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said she was optimistic based on the NHL’s position and the power of so many players.

”We feel confident that we potentially have a gap year now and players are prepared to sit out an entire season of professional hockey, which isn’t good for any one individual player,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. ”But hopefully that will be the maximum that anyone would have to sit out.”

As word of the women’s decision spread, NHL players said they were excited even if they’re not sure how a league run by the NHL might work.

”They’re the best in the world at what they do. They should be compensated accordingly,” Colorado defenseman Ian Cole said. ”I’m not sure how that would be structured. I’m not the chief financial officer of the NHL. I don’t know what the figures would look like. I don’t know if it’s economically feasible. I’m not sure how they would do it. Would we like to see that? Yeah, absolutely.”

AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker, Pat Graham and Tim Booth contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

AP/CP survey: Players pan delay of game, goalie interference

Getty Images
11 Comments

The pace and excitement of 3-on-3 overtime isn’t just a thrill for hockey fans – NHL players love it, too.

An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams found that 97% of those polled enjoy the league’s current overtime format during the regular season. The survey also found there are other rules the players are less thrilled with, ranging from delay-of-game penalties to confusion about goalie interference.

For Arizona Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton, the worst rule in hockey is resolving a game with a shootout when overtime fails to produce a winner.

”I don’t really like the shootout,” he said. ”I think you just play 3-on-3 and eventually someone will score.”

The survey found that 30 players like the 3-on-3 setup. Only Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas said he did not, preferring the previous 4-on-4 setup better. He and said having fewer players on the ice is too much like ”summertime hockey.”

”You work your bag off 60 minutes 5-on-5 and then all of a sudden it’s 3-on-3, a speedier, faster guy pretty much wins,” he said. ”I think 4-on-4 would be more hockey-like situations than 3-on-3.”

Still, his peers said they love it. Playing a five-minute 3-on-3 period provides a fair way to end the game while allowing fans to see some pure skill, Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares said.

”(It’s) exciting and you see the best players in the world with that type of time and space,” he said. ”It goes to show it’s a good way to end games. There’s no perfect science to this. We want a winner, but we can’t play forever. It’s a great way to showcase the talent, the skill of the game.”

The pace can be tough for the guys on the ice, New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said.

”I hate it as a goalie, but I like it as a hockey fan,” he said. ”I think it’s better than the shootout, for sure. And I know it’s not perfect, but it gets you a decision, it gets people excited, you see some amazing skill and the way the league is now, it’s a great showcase for what these guys can do.”

The NHL moved away from 4-on-4 overtime in the 2015-16 regular season in a bid to create more space on the ice, allow for more goals and reduce the number of games going to shootouts. In the postseason, overtime is in 20-minute, sudden-death periods at 5-on-5. There are no shootouts.

Dylan DeMelo of the Ottawa Senators loves 3-on-3, but said there is one tweak he’d like to make. The defenseman said he wants to see a rule that would stop players from taking the puck over center ice and then back again to regroup. He thinks that would make OT even more entertaining.

There are a number of other rules players would love to see changed, including 63.2 that stipulates a delay of game penalty when a puck is shot or batted over the glass.

”I don’t think it should be a penalty. I think it should be the same as an icing. Whistle, faceoff in your end, no ability to change,” said Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, one of five players (16%) who said the rule is the worst in hockey. ”A penalty for a play that has a high chance to happen in a course of a game or a (penalty kill) or whatever, it seems a little drastic.”

For other players, the uncertainty around what constitutes goalie interference is particularly irritating. Three players, or 10% of those in the survey, said the inconsistency was their least-favorite part of the NHL rule book.

”What is goaltender interference and what’s not?” said Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse. ”Maybe having more of a clear line, but any time you talk about something within the game, things happen so fast out there that judgment calls and whatnot, they’re hard to make.”

According to the league, there are only two situations where goaltender interference should result in a disallowed goal: if an attacking player stops the goalie from being able to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, or an attacking player intentionally or deliberately makes contact with the goalie.

Some players say what counts as interference in one game might not be the same in the next.

On Friday, Flyers goalie Cam Talbot tweeted his dissatisfaction with how the rule was applied in the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins.

”Once again the NHL goalie interference review is flawed,” wrote Talbot, who was not part of the AP/CP survey. ”Someone that’s played the game in the blue paint should be in the situation room. Games are being lost in the playoffs and it’s not right. (hash)inconsistent.”

Three players said what they most dislike are offside reviews. Nine others named other rules, including tripping being called alongside diving, and the ban on time outs being used when the puck is iced. Eleven players did not provide a specific answer.

”Rules are the rules. I just follow them,” said winger Anders Lee of the New York Islanders.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

AP/CP Survey: 48 percent of NHLPA reps favor playoff change

18 Comments

Hockey players are conditioned to think that winning the Stanley Cup means going through the best teams to be the best team.

That doesn’t mean they are blind to some of the inequalities of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format. An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams shows that almost half favor changing the format – and most of those support going back to seeding the Eastern and Western conferences 1 through 8, the structure that was used from 1994-2013.

This is the sixth playoffs where each division’s top three teams and a wild card are bracketed together with no reseeding by round. A year ago, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second in the league in points and met in the second round. The same thing happened with Washington and Pittsburgh in 2017.

”It’s kind of tough the fact that a lot of good teams are going out first or second rounds,” Columbus defenseman David Savard said. ”I think maybe we need to look back at maybe 1 against 8 and play that format.”

Savard was among 15 player representatives (48.4%) who said the divisional format should be changed. Seven (22.6%) others said it should stay the same and the other nine (29%) were noncommittal. The players were surveyed March 7-April 4, before the playoff matchups for this year were fully set.

The NHL went to back to a divisional structure similar to what it used from 1982-93 in large part to create or revive rivalries. Toronto and Boston are going to a Game 7 in the first round for the second consecutive year, while the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs three times in a row with each series going at least six games.

”I think it’s good for the rivalries,” said New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider, who supports the current format. ”I think it’s good for the teams seeing each other year after year. You can cry what’s fair or not fair, the two best teams meeting in the second round, but it’s going to be great hockey one way or another. I think that’s the best part about the playoffs is that it’s a two-month gladiator event where everyone just beats the crap out of each other.”

Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay losing in the first round to eighth-seeded Columbus is more of a Lightning problem than a format problem. If the Lightning had gotten past the Blue Jackets, a potential second-round series against the Bruins would have guaranteed to knock out one of the top three teams in the league before the conference finals.

Travel is the biggest concern among players when it comes to a playoff format, and it’s much more of an issue in the spread-out West. Grouping by divisions is designed to limit those issues, but the wild-card system means a team like Nashville could face a team from California, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round if it lines up that way.

”The biggest issue is probably the travel for the Western Conference,” said Predators defenseman Yannick Weber, who did not indicate a preference either way for changing the format. ”If we have to go to California for each round and Eastern teams have a little bit of an easier schedule, I think that’s the only downside from it.”

The most equitable format is seeding playoff teams 1 through 16, which the NHL tried in 1981 and 1982. The potential for cross-continent travel in each round is the biggest impediment to making that leap.

The Southern Professional Hockey League has tested a ”challenge round” format where the top three seeds in each conference get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 5-8. Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle suggested that for the NHL in a recent interview with Sportsnet in Canada.

A pick-your-opponent format would create plenty of bulletin-board material for lower-seeded teams. But in a sport where matchup advantages, injuries and momentum matter more than the results of an 82-game regular season, it could silence complaints that the current format devalues everything from October through March.

”It almost gets to a point that the regular season doesn’t really mean anything because you see those divisions, there’s such a big difference between them,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. ”If you have to cross over and now you’re facing an easier division because you’re a wild card, doesn’t seem to be fair for me. The whole regular season needs to have a bigger effect on the playoffs.”

That’s where the argument comes in that the NHL should move to a play-in system like baseball, perhaps where the Nos. 7 and 10 seeds and Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference play once to see who gets in. That would theoretically give more of a boost to the top two teams in the East and West.

But this format is locked in through at least next season.

Colorado’s Ian Cole, who played twice in the recent Penguins-Capitals playoff trilogy, supports the division rivalry format because it’s doing what it intended: generate interest.

”We were actually talking about it the other day in the locker room: As much as you’d like to see one through eight or one through 16, then you’re having Calgary playing Florida, for instance, in the first round,” Cole said. ”Does that move the needle, as opposed to Boston versus Montreal, which certainly does move the needle?

”I think there was some good thought behind it and yeah, sure, there are going to be some divisions stronger than others. Some teams are going to get left out because of that or get in because of that. It’s one of those things that this is the current format and we work with it the best we can.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports