Jordan Martinook

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.

Isolating away from family a ‘hot topic’ as NHL plots return

1 Comment

Young and single, Thatcher Demko has plenty of time on his hands, with little to do. Quarantining to play hockey wouldn’t be a problem for the Vancouver Canucks goalie.

“I don’t have too many roots,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ve been living pretty much out of my car for the most part for the last six, seven years just going from place to place.”

Older players disagree.

Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk doesn’t think players with children would be interested in spending lengthy stretches away from their loved ones amid the pandemic. And neither does Boston’s Tuukka Rask, who bluntly said: “It doesn’t feel right to take guys away from their families for many, many months at a time.”

It’s a reality players might have to face for the NHL to resume play, something Toronto’s Kyle Clifford calls a “hot topic” among players. While the NHL and its players’ union are discussing a 24-team playoff format to resume the season, figuring out how to incorporate family time in a potential quarantine environment is one of many hurdles to clear.

“For sure that’s a big thing,” said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk, one of the players on the Return to Play committee and a new father. “No one wants to be away from their family for months on end, and everyone is aware of that with who’s on this committee.”

From Dubnyk and Rask in the NHL to Major League Baseball players Mike Trout and Ryan Zimmerman, pro athletes have voiced concerns about spending significant time away from family. When baseball was considering a containment bubble in Arizona to play, Zimmerman — whose wife is due to give birth to the couple’s third child in June — said he wouldn’t accept not seeing them for four or five months.

“I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “Not many people have to go through that, nor should they.”

The NHL, like the NBA, does not face the challenge of trying to complete an entire season. But even an abbreviated return calls for coordinating 600-plus players at different stages of their personal lives.

“I think it’d be easier for guys without families or single guys to kind of go on quarantine and enjoy that process as much as you can,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “But it would be tough being a father myself. It would be tough to live through FaceTime in that situation. But you have to weigh the pros and cons on each side and what’s important for you and your family.”

The league was exploring various locations that could host games, including Edmonton, Columbus and Las Vegas. They could be big enough for players to bring family members with them, or the format might allow for a break in the schedule for teams that advance deep into the playoffs.

“You’ve got to kind of create this bubble, but if families are coming in and out, then I don’t know,” said Carolina’s Jordan Martinook, who has a year-old son he doesn’t want to be away from for more than a month at a time. “That kind of compromises the bubble. I don’t know if they would say your family’s got to be with you from day one the whole time or they can’t come if you’re in the bubble.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said league officials are “sensitive to the issue and are focused on finding a solution that works for the players.”

New Jersey’s Connor Carrick, whose Devils might be off until the start of next season, said he trusts NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and his staff to make a decision in the best interest of as many players as possible. Those waiting on the possibility of playing, like Washington’s Beck Malenstyn, hope there’s a resolution that weighs isolation from family members against the risk of them getting infected.

“I think there’s probably a happy medium between the two,” Malenstyn said. “You definitely don’t just want to close the door on your family in a time like this. But it’s also you have to look at it if we were going to take that step to go back and play, it’s the safety of your family to probably not have them around, either, just with the exposure to everything.”

Added Demko, the Vancouver goalie: “I think everyone’s going to have to make a sacrifice: players, owners, union. I don’t think that there is a scenario where everyone’s going to be happy with the situation.”

Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal

2 Comments

The NHLPA Executive Board vote on the 24-team, conference-based return-to-play proposal went 29-2 in favor of the idea. Given the circumstances, increasing the field, rewarding the top four seeds in each conference, and using play-in games to determine the 16 playoff teams was what ended up getting approved.

The two teams that voted against the proposal weren’t in danger of missing out, but had their reasons to be against such a format.

As Lightning forward Alex Killorn explained to Joe Smith of The Athletic, the bigger field and his team having a Round 1 bye were the main concerns among his teammates.

“They didn’t feel it was fair that certain teams that probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have a chance to make the playoffs in a best-of-five series,” said Killorn, the team’s player rep. “My team also felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.”

[NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format]

The approved format sees the Lightning start with a bye and participating in a mini-tournament with the Bruins, Capitals and Flyers for seeding before taking on one of the play-in round series winners. How useful those games before Round 2 would be was another issue with Killorn and his team.

“The only problem I have with that format is that the top teams that have a bye,” he said. “I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs.”

Hurricanes’ view

Carolina is set to be the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and would take on the Rangers in the play-in round. The winner of that series would then play the No. 3 seed — either the Lightning, Capitals, Bruins or Flyers.

The Hurricanes had 14 games to play and were sitting in the first wild card spot at the time of the March 12 pause. Player rep Jordan Martinook and his teammates disagreed with the proposal because they felt this created format made their road even tougher.

“It just kind of limits our odds and makes you play another playoff series, basically. It wasn’t just for our team’s situation,” Martinook told reporters on Monday. “You look at teams that had a 10 percent chance to make it, and now they’re pretty much on a 50-50 playing field.”

Who knows if the Hurricanes would have reeled off a points streak over the final 14 games to improve their standing, but Martinook was confident his team could have finished strong.

“I’m not taking anything away from the top four teams,” he said, “but we felt like we could have kept climbing the ladder. It doesn’t really benefit the teams in 5, 6, 7 or 8, it kind of hinders those teams. Then, it gives a lot to the 9, 10, 11 and 12.”

Martinook acknowledged that the ideal return to play format would be to finish the regular season, but time is of the essence and the Hurricanes will be ready to play.

“We’re fine with the way it’s going to go,” he said. “You’re going to have to win to win. We’re fully prepared with what we’ve got moving forward.”

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’

————

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Hurricanes on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game will be the second of a back-to-back for Flyers, who beat the Capitals in D.C. Wednesday night. Philadelphia heads into the stretch on a season-long seven-game win streak, their longest since winning eight straight from mid-Jan. to early Feb. last season.

After the Canes topped the Flyers in OT in their most recent meeting on Jan. 7, the Flyers sat behind Carolina in the standings. Since then, the Philly has taken off and played as well as any team in the league, while Carolina has faltered as they look to get back to the postseason. The Flyers are seeking their first division title since the 2010-11 season. They’ve alternated missing and making the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons with three postseason appearances (all Round 1 exits).

Philadelphia has earned 50 points at home this season (23-5-4), tied for the 3rd-most points at home in the NHL. They have won 5 straight home games coming into this one, and 8 of their last 9 at Wells Fargo Center overall.

Sebastian Aho saw his career-long 14-game point come to an end in the loss to Montreal Saturday. He had 21 points (12G-9A) during his streak, which was the 3rd- longest in the NHL this season (Eichel – 17 / Kane – 15). Aho is in the midst of a breakout season. He leads the team with 36 goals and 62 points. His 36 goals are a career high and rank fifth in the NHL. The last Hurricane to reach 40 goals in a season was Eric Staal, who had 40 in the 2008-09 season.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Thursday, March 5, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Hurricanes-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

HURRICANES
Nino Niederreiter – Sebastian Aho – Teuvo Teravainen
Ryan DzingelJordan StaalJustin Williams
Andrei SvechnikovVincent TrocheckMartin Necas
Warren FoegeleJordan MartinookBrock McGinn

Joel EdmundsonJaccob Slavin
Haydn FleuryBrady Skjei
Jake GardinerTrevor van Riemsdyk

Starting goalie: Alex Nedeljkovic

FLYERS
Claude GirouxSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Scott LaughtonKevin HayesTravis Konecny
Joel FarabeeDerek GrantTyler Pitlick
Michael RafflNate ThompsonNicolas Aube-Kubel

Ivan ProvorovMatt Niskanen
Travis SanheimPhilippe Myers
Robert HaggJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call the contest from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday’s studio coverage will be hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Scott Hartnell.

***

NBC Sports will utilize an all-female crew to broadcast and produce game coverage of Sunday’s Blues-Blackhawks game, coinciding with International Women’s Day and marking the first NHL game broadcast and produced solely by women in the U.S.

Kate Scott (play-by-play) will call the action alongside U.S. Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne-Schofield (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) and AJ Mleczko (analyst) from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Game production will be led by producer Rene Hatlelid and director Lisa Seltzer.

PHT Morning Skate: Blues’ goaltending duo; Flyers have issue on defense

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

David Pastrnak has to be ready when teams start targeting him physically. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Cayden Primeau made it to the NHL a lot quicker than many people anticipated. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• The Capitals are so tight up against the salary cap that even simple moves are painful. (Washington Post)

• Getting rid of John Hynes was the right move for the New Jersey Devils. (Pucks and Pitchforks)

• What’s next for the Devils now that Hynes is no longer in the picture? (ESPN)

• The Flyers have stabilized their top-four defensemen, but they need to figure out their third pairing. (Broad Street Hockey)

Jordan Martinook is an important part of the Carolina Hurricanes. (Cardiac Canes)

Kaapo Kakko may be able to help the Rangers’ power play. (New York Post)

Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington have been an important part of St. Louis’ success. (St. Louis Game-Time)

Connor Hellebuyck should be considered the favorite for the Vezina Trophy. (The Hockey News)

• The Seattle expansion franchise is already celebrating their one-year anniversary. (NHL.com)

• We might see a European coach make the leap to the NHL soon. (Sportsnet)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.