Jake Abrahams

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Flames, Sharks meet as battle for Pacific heats up

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Thursday night’s game between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks offers plenty of intrigue. They are the top two teams in the Pacific Division, and they are also the two highest scoring teams in the Western Conference. And after their most recent meeting on December 31 – an 8-5 Flames win – the scoreboard might not be the only place we see fireworks this evening.

In the final 41 seconds of that game, the two teams combined for 66 penalty minutes, including a match penalty for Sam Bennett after he concussed Sharks defenseman Radim Simek with a questionable hit. There was no supplemental discipline for the play, which the Sharks called “gutless” and “predatory” afterwards, so one wonders whether there will be any retribution sought by the Sharks on Bennett.

Close watch should also be kept on Evander Kane and Matthew Tkachuk, who each picked up 10-minute misconducts in a brawl just prior to the Bennett hit. There are fewer Kanes and Tkachuks in today’s NHL – both in terms of their style on the ice and their unfiltered remarks off the ice – which makes the build up to this game even more interesting. However, neither would fully take the bait when asked about things carrying over from December:

“I know what you’re asking, I know what you’re trying to get me to say. We’ll see,” Kane said via The Mercury News. “It’s something that, hopefully, everybody in this room remembers because it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a skill guy, a big guy, a tough guy or a small guy, it’s on each and every person in this room to stick up for one another. We’ll see.”

Said Tkachuk: “I’m don’t think I’m going to be the guy who’s going to give you what you want on that quote. Those games are fun to play in. I love those games. Our whole team’s thriving in those games this year. We have guys that can play that style, too. (Kane) is a good player. They’re a really good team. It’s going to be a great game.”

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was much more definitive in downplaying the revenge factor, telling reporters yesterday, “We know where everybody is in the standings, so that’s first and foremost. This isn’t about settling scores. This is about trying to close the gap on these guys in the division. There’s going to be a lot of emotion. It’s going to be physical. That stuff takes care of itself.”

He is right about the importance of this game in the standings. Since that New Year’s Eve meeting, the Flames have not lost to a Western Conference opponent, and they now have an opportunity to create a six-point cushion over the Sharks. Considering these teams play only once more during the regular season – and not until March 31 – this may be San Jose’s best opportunity to chip away at that deficit.

It would be an even bigger boost for the Sharks considering they will be without Erik Karlsson (lower body) for a sixth straight game, however he could return on the team’s current road trip. It should be noted that in the middle of this absence, Karlsson did participate in the NHL All-Star Game.

Regardless of the outcome tonight though, it is safe to say these are two of the most complete teams in the conference. Bill Peters is a Jack Adams candidate in his first year behind the bench for the Flames, and fellow former Hurricane Elias Lindholm has joined with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau to form one of the most potent lines in hockey. The Sharks are dangerous up and down their lineup, with a pair of Norris Trophy caliber defensemen, as well as five different forwards with 19+ goals – the most such players in the league.

San Jose and Calgary have not faced each other in the playoffs since 2008, but if they keep up their play from the first four months of the season, this could wind up being a high-scoring, hard-hitting, and headline-grabbing second round Stanley Cup playoff matchup.

Senators owner outlines aggressive spending plan for ‘run of unparalleled success’

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At a corporate event on Tuesday, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk pledged that he and the organization would commit the resources necessary to make the team competitive once again, with the goal of bringing the Stanley Cup “to its rightful place in Ottawa.” This news was relayed in a press release sent during Wednesday night’s 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The statement mentions that more time is needed to rebuild the roster, but that as early as 2021, the team will begin a sustained period spending close to the salary cap ceiling. Here are the final two paragraphs from the release:

“Mr. Melnyk also confirmed during the presentation that on the hockey side of the business, the expectation is that the Senators rebuilding plan will take another season or two from now, but when his general manager confirms that the Senators have all the pieces of the foundation in place, he made the following pledge to the guests in attendance:

“The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success – where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025. He reiterated that the Senators’ current rebuild is a blueprint on how to bring the Stanley Cup home to its rightful place in Ottawa.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the obvious place to start is whether the Senators could even be in a position to contend as early as this timeline suggests. Of course, so much depends on the future of pending unrestricted free agents Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, the team’s top two scorers. During Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN, Bob McKenzie reported that the primary concern for both players does not involve dollars and cents, but rather how soon the team would become competitive. That remains a major question considering the Sens are at the bottom of the NHL standings. To make matters worse, the potential lottery pick they would get as a “reward” for cellar-dwelling actually belongs to Colorado as a result of last year’s Duchene trade. That puts even more pressure on general manager Pierre Dorion to get deals done for his two best forwards.

Optimists can point to the return Ottawa got from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson deal, which included a heavy dose of draft picks. But a Sharks postseason appearance this year (a virtual lock at this point) means that Ottawa won’t receiving a first-rounder from them until 2020. So, barring another significant move, it will be at least another year before the Senators pick on day 1 of the draft.

Another reason to believe Ottawa can pivot quickly is that the modern NHL is rife with parity and turnover amongst playoff teams. Each of the past two seasons, seven teams made the playoffs after missing the prior year. And the Senators themselves are familiar with this, having missed the playoffs in 2015-16 before making it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final the following year. Then again, relying on recent trends does not make for a sound strategy.

Moving beyond the proposed timeline of the rebuild, how will Senators fans interpret the latest statement from their team’s owner? Over the past year-plus, Melnyk has delivered mixed messages about the franchise, most notably in December 2017, when he stirred up a controversy by raising the possibility of relocation. Though Melnyk did walk those comments back shortly thereafter, it is still understandable that fans might view this “blueprint” with a degree of skepticism.

Regardless of how this plays out, it is encouraging that Melnyk offered a specific plan for how the team will approach the future, and it gives fans something to hold him accountable to. But before Melnyk and Dorion can begin spending to the cap ceiling, they must focus on the negotiations with Duchene and Stone so the roster doesn’t suffer another Karlsson-sized subtraction. Perhaps these comments will serve as part of the sales pitch to keep them in the fold long-term.

Blackhawks vs. Bruins: 2019 Winter Classic by the numbers

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the 2019 Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET from Notre Dame Stadium. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

0 – Total hat tricks in NHL outdoor game history. 

2 – Number of outdoor games that Brad Marchand has missed playing in due to various circumstances. He was in the AHL during the Bruins’ 2010 game at Fenway Park and he was suspended for the 2016 game at Gillette Stadium.

3 – The Bruins will take part in their third Winter Classic on Jan. 1. They previously participated in the event in 2010 (Fenway Park vs. Flyers) and 2016 (Gillette Stadium vs. Montreal Canadiens).

4 – Number of Winter Classics that have gone past regulation. Two of which (2008 – BUF-PIT and 2014 – TOR/DET) needed the shootout to determine a winner.

5Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith are the only current Blackhawks who have played in all five of the franchise’s outdoor games. If they all hit the ice at Notre Dame Stadium they will be the only NHL players to play in six outdoor games.

6 – The Blackhawks are outdoor game veterans. They have played in six total outdoor games and the meeting with the Bruins will be their fourth Winter Classic. They are 0-3-0 in Winter Classics (2009 vs. Detroit Red Wings, 2015 vs. Washington Capitals, 2017 vs. St. Louis Blues) and 1-1-0 in Stadium Series games (2014 win vs. Penguins, 2016 loss to Minnesota Wild).

6 – All-time outdoor game points by Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, second to Henrik Zetterberg’s seven.

6 – The NHL returns to Indiana for its sixth regular-season game in the state and first since 1992. The Blackhawks have played in all five previous matchups, including a 3-2 loss to the Bruins on Jan. 21, 1954 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 1 P.M. ET – NBC]

10 – Record for goals scored in a Winter Classic, set by the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings in 2009 (6-4 Detroit win). The Red Wings’ six goals is the most by one team in a Winter Classic.

11 – This will be the 11th NHL Winter Classic and the second to be held in a college football stadium (2014 – Toronto vs. Detroit at Michigan Stadium). Six others have been held in baseball stadiums and three in NFL stadiums.

13 – Degrees in Fahrenheit of the coldest recorded temperature at puck drop for a Winter Classic (2014, Ann Arbor, MI).

19 Average low temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, for South Bend, Ind. on Jan. 1, according to accuweather.com.

26 – This will be the 26th NHL outdoor game. The first outdoor game was the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. Chicago vs. Boston is the first of two outdoor games this season. The Pittsburgh Penguins will play the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 23 (8 p.m. ET, NBC) from Lincoln Financial Field.

32 – Average high temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, for South Bend, Ind. on Jan. 1, according to accuweather.com.

36 – Total number of games in Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s NHL career, all of which were played with the Blackhawks, who drafted him in the first-round in 1983.

50 – Degrees in Fahrenheit of the warmest recorded temperature at puck drop for a Winter Classic (Pittsburgh, 2011).

84 – Number of Notre Dame Fighting Irish hockey players drafted to the NHL, including four Stanley Cup Champions; Bill Nyrop (1976, 1977, 1978 with Montreal), Don Jackson (1984, 1985 with Edmonton), Ian Cole (2016, 2017 with Pittsburgh) and Bryan Rust (2016, 2017 with Pittsburgh) according to University of Notre Dame Hockey.

350 – Gallons of paint used to make the ice at Notre Dame Stadium white.

708 – Number of players and coaches who have participated in the NHL’s 25 regular-season outdoor games to date.

1995 – Year in which Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman graduated from Notre Dame University.

Mike Tirico will host the network’s Winter Classic pre-game coverage alongside the NHL Live studio team of host Kathryn Tappen, and analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. Six-time Emmy Award-winner and La Fontaine, Ind., native Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call from Notre Dame Stadium.