Ilya Mikheyev

Early returns: NHL players on getting back in small groups during Phase 2

As of Tuesday, we’re two days into Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan. To put things mildly, not every NHL team has approached Phase 2 in the same way. Considering the protocols for opening things up, plenty haven’t gotten the puck rolling just yet.

This post aims to round up some of the perspectives from players who have gotten the chance to get back a bit, though. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list of every team back in action for Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.

Matt Benning on the Oilers skating

One curious question is: how long does it take to shake off the rust. Considering that the NHL is still trying to hash out details for training camps (aka Phase 3), the answer appears subjective.

“If I’m off the ice for two days, it feels like I’ve never skated in my life before, so three months was a little bit nerve-wracking …” Oilers defenseman Matt Benning said.

Benning noted that it takes different players different amounts of time to get used to edgework and other skating factors. But it sounds like Benning specifically sits in the “more the merrier” camp. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

If you need a moment of zen, enjoy this footage of the Oilers beginning Phase 2:

*refreshed Ahhhhh*

Tavares doing Tavares things early in NHL Phase 2

Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares is known for being something of a thinking man’s hockey star. Sometimes that drive can manifest itself in ways that are … honestly, kind of nerdy.

Tavares told reporters including TSN’s Karen Shilton that he quickly decided to start taping his sticks at home to get the most out of his time.

“There’s a pretty big-time crunch on being in the arena; you only have about 45 minutes to an hour to complete your workout and you’ve got about 40 minutes on the ice,” Tavares said. “The windows are fairly small, but the actual work we’re able to get in is going to go a long way in helping us prepare and get ready. The intensity is there.”

Shilton notes that Tavares is skating in a group with Jack Campbell, Cody Ceci, Mitch Marner, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jake Muzzin.

Josh Bailey among Islanders getting back to skating at facility

Bailey joined Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, and Thomas Greiss for small-group workouts. Bailey admitted feeling some rust, and that there’s no substitute for skating.

There’s also no substitute for family. Bailey acknowledged that the “hub city” system will take some getting used to. At least he’d have his Islanders teammates, though.

“It’ll definitely be different,” Bailey said, via Cory Wright of the Islanders’ website. “No matter how it all comes together, when, how, if, whatever the case may be. It won’t be what we are accustomed to. But when you’re with the team it kind of gives you that feeling of normalcy.”

Plenty still needs to be settled before NHL goes from Phase 2 to Phase 3

Overall, the Phase 2 return to ice seems more like a trickle than a stampede.

For every instance such as Marc-Andre Fleury getting geared up with the Golden Knights, there are players who want to avoid taking risks, or teams facing restrictions.

In some cases, players are able to skate on their own. During an appearance on “Lunch Talk Live,” Blake Wheeler explained that he’s been able to get some reps in with Adam Oates in the Boca Raton area in Florida.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups

1 Comment

We now know who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer and who will have a long wait until next season.

With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Western Conference matchups]

(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens

Regular season recap

At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.

How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).

The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.

Between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins needed both goaltenders this season. Murray started the year, Jarry took over and was named an All-Star Game replacement, and it was Murray getting most of the work down the stretch.

It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.

Season series

Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.

Injured players who could return

Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.

An ankle injury kept Jonathan Drouin out for Montreal’s last six games and an upper-body injury sidelined Tomas Tatar for three matchups. Jesperi Kotkaniemi (spleen), who was in the AHL at the time of his injury, is not expected to play again this season. Victor Mete could be back after suffering a fractured foot in February.

Storylines to watch

This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…

Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?

Getty Images

(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers

Regular season recap

It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.

New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.

The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.

Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.

Season series

Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.

Injured players who could return

Leg injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen had them out of the lineup for extended periods of time. Given the time between games potentially being played, the Hurricanes blue line could be bolstered with those two back on the ice. Brett Pesce, meanwhile, may not be back in time from shoulder surgery. His timeline was 4-6 months back in March.

Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.

He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.

Storylines to watch

Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?

[MORE: Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal]

Getty Images

(7) Islanders vs. (10) Panthers

Regular season recap

Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.

Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.

While the offense will rely heavily on Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mike Hoffman, they also have received good depth production. Noel Acciari potted 20 goals, Brett Connolly hit for 19, and Frank Vatrano hit for 16. It remains to be seen how much they’ll miss Vincent Trocheck, who was dealt to Carolina in February, bringing back a package that included Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark.

If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.

That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.

Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.

J.G. Pageau was acquired at the trade deadline to assist an offense that needs firepower. The Islanders don’t generate a ton of even strength chances and only feature a pair of 20-goal scorers — Brock Nelson (25) and Anders Lee (19).

Season series

Islanders lead season series 3-0-0. Last meeting: Dec. 12; an Islanders 3-1 win.

Injured players who could return

After receiving 90 stitches following a frightening skate-to-the-eye injury in March, Johnny Boychuk should be back on the Islanders’ blue line. Casey Cizikas, who suffered a skate laceration, is also expected to be ready to go. An Achilles injury put defenseman Adam Pelech out of the lineup in January and it would be a stretch to see him back this summer.

Storylines to watch

The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.

Getty Images

(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets

Regular season recap

The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.

Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.

Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.

The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.

Season series

Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.

Injured players who could return

Could Josh Anderson come back by late summer? He was given a 4-6 month recovery period and it’s been nearly three months since he underwent shoulder surgery. The extra time off bodes well for Cam Atkinson (ankle), Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Seth Jones (ankle), and Alexandre Texier (back) among the Blue Jackets’ long list of walking wounded.

For the Leafs, Ilya Mikheyev (wrist laceration), Jake Muzzin (hand), and Andreas Johnsson (knee) should be good to go when play resumes.

Storylines to watch

On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.

On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

More bad Maple Leafs injury news: Jake Muzzin out week-to-week

Muzzin week-to-week
Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to pile up wins … and also, unfortunately, injuries. Following bad news for Ilya Mikheyev, the team announced that defenseman Jake Muzzin is week-to-week with a broken foot.

Clearly, beating the Devils 5-4 in OT on Friday now qualifies as a costly win. Muzzin hurt himself blocking a shot, while that scary skate blade injury will cost Mikheyev months.

Muzzin suffered the injury during the first period, but kept playing and walking. Maybe that made things a bit worse?

Maple Leafs injuries accumulate

Again, the list of injuries is starting to climb, especially if you consider the season at large (with Mitch Marner and John Tavares missing substantial time).

Combine Muzzin and Mikheyev with the losses of wingers Trevor Moore (out indefinitely with a concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg, on IR) and things escalate. About the only “perk” is that all of those injuries alleviate short-term salary cap concerns.

Deflecting to that really feels like gallows humor, though.

Maple Leafs might need to keep outscoring their problems

OK, maybe there’s one other indirect perk: still-new head coach Sheldon Keefe gets even more incentive just to let this group loose. However you feel about Muzzin’s effectiveness since joining the Maple Leafs, he’s not really there for elite scoring ability. Theoretically, his replacements may bring more to the table and take more away. Personally, I’d be more than OK with additional games like that 8-6 thrillride against the Hurricanes, but others, are … well, grumpier. Some agree with my high-entertainment preference, though.

At minimum, the Maple Leafs appear refreshed and unleashed under Keefe compared to the dull latter Mike Babcock days.

Even grumbling critics have to agree that they’ve been better in the standings lately. Toronto’s now won six in a row, with a chance to make it seven against the Rangers on Saturday.

Are they messy sometimes? Sure, but personally, I’ll take a messy-fun hockey game over a “perfectly” played snore-fest.

And, frankly, it’s clearly the style of game that behooves Toronto’s bounty of talent. With Muzzin out week-to-week, it might not just be the best choice, but also the only choice.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Another 2-goal game for Bergeron; Perron keeps Blues rolling

NHL Scores
Getty

Three Stars

1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. There is no stopping Bergeron right now. He scored two more goals for the Bruins in their 3-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night, giving him three consecutive two goal games. He also has nine goals in his past nine games. With 17 goals in 30 games, he is having one of the best goal-scoring seasons of his already incredible career. He is the just the fifth different Bruins player to ever score multiple goals in at least three consecutive games, and the first to do it since Cam Neely during the 1988-89 season.

2. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers. With two goals and an assist in a 6-4 win, Zibanejad continued his outstanding season for the Rangers. He is averaging more than a point-per-game and has once again been one of the bright spots for the Rangers. His first goal came on an absolutely ridiculous no-look, behind-the-back pass from Chris Kreider that you can see in the highlights down below. The Rangers still have their flaws and do not always win pretty, but with Artemi Panarin (who also recorded three points on Friday night) they have some serious impact talent than can keep them in games and give them a chance on most nights.

3. David Perron, St. Louis Blues. With Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined the Blues needed some other forwards to help step up and provide the offense. Perron has been one of those players. He scored another overtime goal on Friday (already his fourth this season) to help lift the Blues to a 4-3 win against the Winnipeg Jets and extend their current winning streak to seven games. Perron has 24 points in his past 22 games.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • William Nylander and John Tavares both had three points for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they extended their winning streak to six games. The only bad news in the game was Ilya Mikheyev leaving the game with a serious cut to his wrist. Read about that here.
  • Robin Lehner made 38 saves against his former team to lead the Chicago Blackhawks to a 5-2 win over the New York Islanders.
  • Tristan Jarry picked up another win for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their depth scoring had a huge night in a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • The Minnesota Wild rallied past the Colorado Avalanche in the third period. Read more about their win and their recent hot streak here.
  • Andrew Mangiapane scored 11 seconds into the game and finished with three points as the Calgary Flames won the first Battle of Alberta for this season, 5-1, over the Edmonton Oilers.
  • The Anaheim Ducks scored three goals in 97 seconds then held on to beat the Vegas Golden Knights by a 4-3 margin.
  • The Los Angeles Kings overcame a 2-0 third period deficit to beat the San Jose Sharks, 3-2, in overtime. Martin Frk scored his first two goals of the season to tie the game, setting the stage for Jeff Carter to win it in overtime.

Highlights of the Night

Check out this behind-the-back pass by Kreider to set up Zibanejad for the Rangers’ first goal of the night.

This pass from Richard Panik to set up Carl Hagelin is an absolute beauty. The Capitals were 2-1 winners in overtime thanks to a T.J. Oshie game-winning goal.

It came in a losing effort for the Avalanche, but Gabriel Landeskog scored a beauty of a goal against the Wild.

Blooper of the Night

Damon Severson scored an overtime goal for the wrong team. Read more about it here.

Factoids

  • Alex Ovechkin‘s assist on T.J. Oshie’s game-winning goal was his 36th career regular season point in overtime. Only Patrik Elias has more. He also made the decision tonight to not play in the 2020 NHL All-Star game. Read about his reasoning here.  [NHL PR]
  • Cale Makar played his 30th career regular season game for the Avalanche and joined some exclusive company in the process. [NHL PR]
  • Jeff Carter scored the game-winning goal for the Kings, giving him 11 career overtime goals. No player in Kings history has more. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 3, Buffalo Sabres 0
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, New Jersey Devils 4 (OT)
New York Rangers 5, Carolina Hurricanes 3
Washington Capitals 2, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
Minnesota Wild 6, Colorado Avalanche 4
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Nashville Predators 2
St. Louis Blues 5, Winnipeg Jets 4
Chicago Blackhawks 5, New York Islanders 2
Calgary Flames 5, Edmonton Oilers 1
Anaheim Ducks 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Los Angeles Kings 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (OT)

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.

Maple Leafs get holiday gift thanks to Devils’ own goal in OT

Maple Leafs
NHL
1 Comment

The Toronto Maple Leafs won again on Friday night, picking up a 5-4 overtime victory in New Jersey to extend their winning streak to six games and improve their overall record to 12-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe.

They have Devils defenseman Damon Severson to thank for the extra point in overtime.

It was there that Severson had the misfortune of accidentally scoring on his own net.

It all happened after he collected a loose puck between the circles and attempted to chip the puck behind the net. None of it went as planned as his chip ended up going on net and beating a stunned Mackenzie Blackwood.

Have a look.

William Nylander, the last Maple Leafs player to touch the puck, gets credit for the winning goal. It is already his 15th goal of the season, putting him on pace for 31 goals this season. He scored just seven goals in 54 games a year ago. His career-high is 22 goals.

Toronto still has its flaws — the play of backup goalie Michael Hutchinson was again an issue on Friday — but they still look like a completely different team under Keefe. They are more aggressive offensively, they are scoring more goals, and they are playing to their strengths.

They have scored at least four goals in all six of their wins on this streak.

The win on Friday keeps them in second place in the Atlantic Division, giving them a four-point lead over Montreal for that spot. They look to extend their winning streak to seven games on Saturday night when they return home to play the New York Rangers.

More Maple Leafs coverage

Ilya Mikheyev taken to hospital with ‘significant’ laceration to wrist
Maple Leafs are better, more dangerous team under Keefe 

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.