Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

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WATCH LIVE: Rangers visit Flyers on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Pride will be at stake between the Rangers and Flyers when they meet in the first game on Star Sunday on NBC.

The Flyers were officially eliminated from the playoffs after a tough 5-2 loss on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers, meanwhile, have been out of contention for a while, missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 15 years.

“I think the poor start is the reason that we’re in this position,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said after Saturday’s game. “Every year it feels like it’s the same story. We need to figure it out…we know we can make the playoffs and be a dangerous team, but we can believe whatever we want. We just have to go out there and make it happen.”

For New York, stopping the Flyers’ six-game winning streak against them — including their three previous meetings this season — will be top of the order. The Flyers haven’t swept the season series since the 1984-85 season.

Philly put up a valiant effort this season after firing the general manager and head coach they began the season with. The Rangers began the season on a rebuilding foot, having brought in David Quinn while selling off several key pieces at the trade deadline.

Despite where both teams find themselves, there won’t be lacking for motivation.

“You want to win hockey games, especially when you’re playing a division rival,” Quinn said.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

WHAT: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Sunday, March 31, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Vladislav NamestnikovFilip ChytilVinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyLias AnderssonRyan Strome
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenBoo Nieves

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithNeal Pionk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

FLYERS

James van RiemsdykNolan Patrick — Claude Giroux
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Ryan HartmanScott LaughtonTravis Konecny
Michael RafflCorban KnightPhil Varone

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbeherePhilippe Myers
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Ed Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage alongside Mike Milbury and Keith Jones.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Quinn Hughes made quite the debut for Canucks

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When Quinn Hughes joined Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser on the ice during 3-on-3 overtime for Vancouver on Thursday, you couldn’t really blame Canucks fans for thinking “The future is now.”

(Granted, they might have thought that in a less-cliched, but maybe more profanity-laced way. Depending upon the specific Canucks fan, of course.)

Hughes made his NHL debut during Vancouver’s 3-2 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings, and showed why fans were chanting “We want Hughes!” before his first shift. The 19-year-old didn’t disappoint, either, showing why people think he was a steal as the seventh overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Hughes grabbing an assist in the game wasn’t promising merely because he already produced offense. Instead, it really encapsulated a lot of the reasons people think he’s going to be a big deal. During the play, he absolutely bamboozled Trevor Lewis with his excellent skating and anticipation, banking the puck to himself, and then letting go a shot that created a juicy rebound. Brock Boeser then fired it home, so this was very much a primary assist by Hughes:

And that 3-on-3 OT sequence seemed like a portal into a future — a future where Pettersson, Boeser, and Hughes give opponents fits.

Hughes’ skating and scoring ability seem like they’ll translate incredibly well to the modern NHL game, and that showed on Thursday.

It’s also a reminder that, while this ranks as another painful season for the Canucks, it’s tough to dismiss the feeling of hope in Vancouver. For all GM Jim Benning has done wrong – and the list isn’t necessarily small – it sure seems like he’s hit it out of the park multiple times with draft picks, at least in the first round.

And while the Canucks dynamic duo/tremendous trio weren’t exactly lingering in the late rounds of drafts, these weren’t necessarily layup picks like, say, selecting Sidney Crosby first and Evgeni Malkin after Alex Ovechkin.

  • Boeser, 22, went 23rd overall in 2015. The Canucks’ hated foes the Bruins had three opportunities to pick Boeser. Also, Boeser was selected after the likes of Pavel Zacha, Evgeny Svechnikov, and Joel Eriksson Ek. (Sorry, fans of the several teams who whiffed especially badly there.)
  • It feels strange to call the fifth pick of the 2017 NHL Draft a “steal,” especially this early … but Pettersson already looks like a star at 20. If there was a re-draft, Pettersson would go ahead of Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, Miro Heiskanen, and Cale Makar … right? He certainly would last as long as fifth.
  • Hughes, 19, went seventh. The opening picks of that draft have made remarkable impacts already, from obvious guys like Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov, to players who maybe had to scrape for their positions in Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Brady Tkachuk. Hughes might not be a “steal” like the other two, but the Canucks would still prosper if he merely ends up being a really useful player.

It’s tantalizing, then, to wonder how much the Canucks may skip in line if they hit another homer in the first round, this time in the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft.

From a fun headlines standpoint, you wouldn’t be able to top the Canucks getting projected top pick Jack Hughes to join his brother Quinn. That’s possible, although unlikely — via the Push for the Playoffs, you can see that Vancouver’s draft lottery odds currently stand at just six percent.

In the likely event that Vancouver doesn’t win the draft lottery, the Canucks have shown that they can make the most of a first-rounder, even when it’s not at the absolute top of a draft. (At least lately, as the jury’s still out on players like Olli Juolevi, who went fifth in 2016.)

Honestly, even if the results are more modest this time around, the future seems brighter every time a new gem is added to the mix, and Hughes looks like he might continue that trend. This trio should also make the Canucks a lot more fun to watch in the present while they build toward that future.

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.

Bettman rejects Voracek’s appeal, upholds two-game suspension

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To little surprise, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman rejected Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek‘s appeal, thus upholding Voracek’s two-game suspension.

Voracek, 29, sought to appeal that suspension for an interference hit on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk. Bettman’s ruling on the suspension revealed that Voracek and his reps were looking to reduce the suspension from two games to one.

Bettman provided his full reasoning in this one-page ruling, with this excerpt being the most noteworthy part:

(See the video above this post’s headline for the hit, and Voracek’s initial reactions.)

This was an unusual process in a few ways.

To start, there were some interesting events in the aftermath of the hit. Boychuk essentially vowed revenge on Voracek, prompting the Flyers winger to accuse Boychuk of cutting a pro wrestling promo on him.

“He’s pointing at me like it’s WrestleMania or something,” Voracek said after the game. “Come on, it’s a hockey game. This is a guy who was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year at the end of the game, and he’s going to do that. Give me a break.”

Then, when the league announced the two-game suspension, Voracek’s derision was palpable, and emoji-filled:

In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman notes that it’s quite unusual for a player in Voracek’s position to appeal a suspension in the first place.

While larger suspensions can go to an independent arbitrator – who frequently reduce the length of suspensions – rulings like Voracek’s stop at Gary Bettman’s desk, so it was unlikely that this would go any further. Friedman wrote about how rare this is:

The last eight appeals this decade involved only one that ended up being fewer than 10 games. (That was Dan Carcillo’s 2014 playoff punishment for physical abuse of an official, shortened to six by Bettman.) I can find only one try for anything as low as Voracek’s two. That was Joe Thornton in November 2010, also trying to lift a two-game suspension — for a hit to the head of David Perron. He failed to move the needle, as Bettman upheld the original decision. So this is rare. In some ways, it is fitting the Flyers would be the ones to charge at the status quo.

Ultimately, that challenge was unsuccessful, as Voracek’s two-gamer stands.

Then again, maybe Voracek was doing this to send a message, although a successful appeal would have left him available for Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals. Instead, he’ll have to settle for a return against the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Friday, after that two-game suspension runs its course.

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.

Flyers’ Voracek to appeal two-game suspension

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Jakub Voracek’s feelings on being suspended two games by the NHL for his hit on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk Saturday night were summed up in five simple emojis:

Voracek was assessed a major for interference. Boycuk did not return to the game and has been ruled out of the Islanders’ game on Monday against Columbus.

The Philadelphia Flyers forward is taking his displeasure with the Department of Player Safety one step forward by appealing the two-game ban, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. Voracek will travel to the NHL’s offices in New York City on Tuesday afternoon in hopes of having the suspension reduced to one game or wiped out entirely.

“He’s pointing at me like it’s WrestleMania or something,” Voracek said after the game. “Come on, it’s a hockey game. This is a guy who was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year at the end of the game, and he’s going to do that. Give me a break.”

“I don’t think Jake has any wrong intentions there. He’s trying to protect himself,” said Flyers interim head coach Scott Gordon. “The guy is sprinting in on him hard. It’s not like it was a 50/50 puck, where he’s waiting for him to come to him and step into him. He clearly sees that the guy coming and he’s trying to brace himself.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will hear Voracek’s appeal. The process will stop after Bettman’s decision as only suspensions of six games or more allow the player to appeal to a neutral arbitrator.

Voracek will remain out through the duration of the two-game suspension as he appeals.

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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