NHL on NBCSN: Special teams, coaching a big part of Flyers’ big mess

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. Flyers-Devils stream coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Honestly, it was hard not to chuckle a little when the Philadelphia Flyers lined their bench with Alain Vigneault as head coach alongside two coaches with multiple head coaching stops (Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo) as his assistants.

Alongside Chuck Fletcher, a GM who received a long run to get things right with the Wild, it felt like the Flyers turned into the Retreads. You could almost picture a worn-out tire as the Flyers’ new logo. Being that promising youth was the main reason to be excited about the Flyers’ future, it felt like the front office wasn’t particularly interested in new ideas.

Yet, with a strong regular season, those snickers were stifled. Really, they knocked it out of the park to the point that the Flyers might have set expectations too high.

Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Devils, it feels like the once-high-flying Flyers ran out of fuel, and crashed into a wall.

Flyers grasp for answers heading into game against Devils on Tuesday

Despite firing 37 shots on goal, the Flyers could only beat Ilya Sorokin once, falling to the Islanders 2-1 in OT on Monday.

“It was a really good game from a lot of aspects from our team,” Brian Elliott said, via NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall. “We don’t like the result, but it’s a good building block and I think that shows us how we need to play on a nightly basis.”

Unfortunately for the Flyers’ playoff hopes, it’s getting a little late to lay down building blocks. Moral victories only go so far.

Sure, it’s better that the Flyers avoided allowing three goals or more for the first time during this pretty-late moment in the month of March. But this has still been a pretty disastrous run.

Catching the up-and-down Bruins might be the Flyers’ best bet, but how strong are those odds? The 15-11-4 Flyers sit two points behind the 16-8-4 Bruins, and Boston has two games in hand (36 points in 28 games played to 34 points in 30 GP for the Flyers).

That might not sound like a too-tall mountain to climb, but that can grow faster than a teenager with an NBA future if the Flyers don’t take care of business in games like tonight against the Devils.

Special teams a major issue for the Flyers

As of this writing, the Flyers rank in the bottom 10 of the NHL in power-play proficiency (18.6) and penalty-killing percentage (74.4).

Jordan C. Hall put together an interesting side-by-side comparison for the Flyers’ first 30 games last season, vs. this season’s first 30. Ultimately, the offense remains remarkably comparable, while the defense and penalty kill have bottomed out:

It’s difficult not to circle back to chuckling at those coaching staff decisions from before.

Now, don’t get this twisted; it’s not just a coaching issue. The Flyers have suffered from poor work from Carter Hart and their goaltenders, and the lack of defensive execution isn’t merely X’s and O’s.

[COVERAGE OF FLYERS-DEVILS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

If fixing up that penalty kill is mostly a matter of time (and maybe some extra video study?), then Vigneault & Co. should also consider ways to possibly pump up that power play.

One frustrating area for the Flyers is seeing talented players getting healthy scratched. Yes, Shayne Gostisbehere makes mistakes, and last night’s OT-winner might not do him favors.

But sometimes you need to take the good with the bad. Over the long haul, Gostisbehere and Travis Konecny are players you want out there, especially on the power play. As much as Vigneault wants to “send a message” by benching players, it’s possible that he’s instilling an atmosphere of fear that stifles creativity.

There’s a balance between being conscientious to avoid mistakes, and being so conservative that you start preventing your own chances. And things might seem to feel unfair if skilled players seem to get benched more than limited veterans do, as Broad Street Hockey interestingly discussed.

Vigneault and his coaching staff have plenty of experience. In particular with Vigneault, he’s also enjoyed a lot of success.

Sometimes coaches wear out their welcome, or fall into bad habits. As much as Vigneault wants Flyers players to clean up their games, he might want to make some tweaks himself. If not, the Flyers could miss the playoffs, and he might feel the familiar, uncomfortable tingle of the “hot seat” once again.

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.

‘Create your own excitement’: Players ponder empty buildings

The roar of the crowd has been such a staple of major sports, such an advantage for the home team, that NFL clubs have been accused at times of artificial amplification. The Atlanta Falcons even admitted to the mischief, leading to a 2015 punishment from the league.

When the coronavirus risk wanes enough to allow the games to begin again, something besides the fans will be missing: The very essence of these events will be gone, too, at least for a while. No cheers, no boos, no chants or whistles. No one behind the backboard trying to distract a free-throw shooter. No kids seeking autographs.

Playing in empty buildings, for these well-paid performers, will require a significant recalibration.

“You know how much I love to talk to the fans, you know? To be in conversation, to throw the ball to kids,” Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez said, hoping a baseball season will come to pass. “It’s going to be hard. It’s never happened before to me. If that’s going to be the best way to start playing, we have to do it, but I don’t think I’m going to feel good the first couple of games with no fans.”

One NASCAR driver called fan-less sports “weird” and he won’t be the last. Even when there is the green light to reopen the gates to the public, near or full-capacity attendance figures are not likely for some time. Temporary caps on the amount of fans who can come in are expected, with the goal of maintaining social distancing.

Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said national consultants have advised between 17% to 35% capacity at football stadiums for now, depending on layout. The combination of an economic downturn and skittishness about germ spread might naturally keep crowds smaller, too.

“Sure, it would still be guys competing at their highest level and their hardest, because that’s what we do,” said Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal, who won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006. “But as far as comparing it to a full building in a Game 7, there’s no comparison.”

Strength and stamina. Speed and agility. Focus and determination. Experience and preparation. All that factors in to success on the field, court or rink. Adrenaline is also an ingredient, though, and athletes might have to learn how to play with a little less than they’ve been used to. LeBron James declared he had no interest in playing in front of empty seats before walking that back to being simply disappointed.

“I feel like the fans pick you up,” Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “The fans are what makes the game exciting. The fans would give you that extra juice when you’re tired and fatigued. When you make that big play and you hear 80,000 fans going crazy, that pumps you up. If you don’t have that in the game, I think that just takes the fun out of it.”

The players may need to revert to those school-age days of summer when a complaint about boredom might have prompted this familiar challenge from a parent: Make your own fun.

“When I was in college, we would go and play like Purdue, and there wasn’t a lot of fans in the stadium, and our coach would say, ‘Y’all have got to bring your own juice today,’ because there’s no electricity in the crowd,” said Green Bay Packers safety Adrian Amos, who played at Penn State.

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse was pondering this recently in light of the widely viewed ESPN documentary, “ The Last Dance,” about Michael Jordan and the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls.

“That’s a perfect example, his mindset in a lot of those games of creating your own environment, creating your own fire,” Nurse said. “That’s a test everyone who is in this situation is going to have to go through: Having to create your own excitement. There shouldn’t be a whole lot that you need to get you going, because you are still playing for a Stanley Cup. Yes, there are no fans there, and you might be in a hub city, but there is an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup.”

The recipe for success?

“The team or the teams that get over that the quickest and buy into the format and the fact that it’s not changing and we’ve just got to get on with it,” said Winnipeg Jets right wing Blake Wheeler, anticipating the NHL’s 24-team postseason tournament that will be held behind closed doors in two yet-to-be-determined cities. The NBA is planning a 22-team format in Orlando, Florida.

For all the atmospheric change that would come to the games themselves, it’s worth noting just how much time teams spend rehearsing with nobody there to root them on.

“We practice every day in an empty grass area and pump in fake crowd noise for away games,” Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Honestly, to go out and just play the game would kind of be refreshing, a breath of fresh air, to just let us know that we don’t have to have all the smoke and the fire. We can just play football.”

Road games would certainly become easier for Cousins and his blockers and their peers around the NFL, suddenly able to hear all the pre-snap strategy without worrying about a false start penalty. In Germany, where the Bundesliga soccer season has resumed without fans, players have been able to pick out some positives despite the letdown in energy level.

“When they are loud and they are screaming, you get pushed and you are more emotional and maybe you speak in another way with the referee,” said Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich. “Now you can be more quiet and calm and speak in a normal way with the referee, and you don’t have to shout at him, and he doesn’t have to shout back.”

A little bit like the days of youth leagues.

“Maybe the focus is more on the game. It’s not like a show,” Kimmich said.

NHL Power Rankings: Six best playoff series of the decade

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What things do you look for in choosing the best NHL playoff series of the past decade?

The nail-biting action of sudden-death overtime? Grudges that inspire handshake line death threats?

(Please don’t say “lots of neutral-zone trap.” Even Jacques Lemaire would probably rather go fishing or something than watch that.)

During the weekend, the NHL and NHLPA made some traction toward a possible return to play, according to Pierre LeBrun. Even so, it’s pretty clear that if the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs happen, it will require some juggling.

Would it all really be worth it? That’s an extremely fair question to ask. Even so, all of this free time and the possible resumption of play give us a chance to think about how great, baffling, and nerve-wracking playoff hockey can be.

Let’s look at the six best NHL playoff series of the decade. In no way am I combining certain ones and generally cheating, kind of making it more than six series. I would never do that.

6. Sharks, Golden Knights engage in one wild Game 7

Personally, I don’t think it’s out of place to put last year’s Golden Knights – Sharks series on this list. And, yes, it can make it on this list based on the strength of that bewildering Game 7 alone.

In a vacuum, that Game 7 already inspires wonder.

Cody Eakin got whistled for that controversial major penalty when he bloodied Joe Pavelski. In mere minutes, the Golden Knights’ 3-0 Game 7 lead vanished as the Sharks scored a ridiculous four power-play goals. Almost as remarkably, Jonathan Marchessault showed that Vegas wouldn’t just quit, sending it to overtime. Then barely-used Barclay Goodrow scored a tremendous series-winner:

Sprinkle in added context and that Game 7 gets spicier.

Both Eakin and Pavelski are now on other teams. The Golden Knights fired Gerard Gallant this season, replacing him with DeBoer, who Gallant called a “clown” during that series. Heck, even Goodrow is out of San Jose now.

5. Flyers complete “reverse” sweep against Bruins, Round 2 in 2009-10

It’s hard to believe it, but Pro Hockey Talk came into existence during the 2009-10 season, forming around the 2009-10 trade deadline. Let me tell you: the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs served as a playoff run that’s tough to top.

Beyond Patrick Kane‘s funky overtime goal becoming the first Stanley Cup-clincher for PHT, Jaroslav Halak and the Habs served up two stunning upsets to the Capitals and Penguins in respective seven-game series.

(The baffled face of Bruce Boudreau became quite the gift for meme enthusiasts.)

But the sheer chaos of the second-round series between the Bruins and Flyers takes the cake.

The Flyers became what was then the third (and now the fourth) NHL team to rage back from a 3-0 series deficit. Even according to those standards, Philly poured in extra drama.

It was almost a little too on-the-nose. Just like in the series, the Bruins took a jarring 3-0 lead in Game 7. Also like the series, the Flyers refused to roll over, eventually winning Game 7 4-3 in overtime thanks to a Simon Gagne goal.

4. Bruins torment Maple Leafs in Game 7’s, especially in 2012-13

Aside from a respectable first-round series loss to the Capitals in 2016-17, every Maple Leafs season since 2005-06 ended in one of two ways:

  • Missing the playoffs.
  • Or losing to the Bruins in a heartbreaking Game 7.

We didn’t know it yet, but the “it was 4-1” nightmare ended up being the most horrific part of a terrifying trilogy. After serving as the slasher movie villain who wouldn’t die in 2012-13, the Bruins kept hunting down the Maple Leafs in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

(Nazem Kadri definitely served as the horror movie character who investigates that strange noise. Or maybe he was the person who did something last summer? I can’t decide.)

That Game 7 on May 13, 2013 remains dizzying. The Maple Leafs were up 4-1 5:29 into the third period, yet that lead unraveled during a series of events that remains hard to believe. Ultimately, Patrice Bergeron ended the series at 5-4 with an overtime-winner.

Again, repeated Game 7 letdowns open up these old wounds, and create new ones for Maple Leafs fans. Ouch.

3. Another seven-game series between the Capitals and Penguins (2016-17)

How about we just cobble together all of the great series the Capitals and/or Penguins were in during the decade? When in doubt, go with Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.

After all, they both faced the Lightning in seven-game series. For sheer brutality and inanity, you could absolutely argue that the Flyers beating the Penguins in six games in 2011-12 should be a top-five series. And, of course, it was epic when the Capitals finally slayed the Penguins dragon in 2017-18.

But in boiling down this list to a manageable size, let’s go with another series that went seven between these two teams.

A truly fantastic Capitals team seemed to “choke,” falling behind 3-1 in the series. It’s easy forget that they defiantly forced a Game 7, though, because the Penguins ended up winning 2-0. Some rare tough moments for Braden Holtby set the stage for that redemptive run to win the Stanley Cup in 2018.

2. A riotous 2011 Stanley Cup Final series between the Canucks and Bruins

For a long time, I thought this series should be number one. It tops the list if you weigh memorable moments most heavily.

No doubt, the riots in Vancouver after Game 7 were ugly. It was also hard to look away.

The messiness started before all of the property damage, though. Tim Thomas didn’t want to “pump Roberto Luongo’s tires.” Brad Marchand was, well, Brad Marchand to the Sedin twins. An Aaron Rome hit on Nathan Horton backfired for the Canucks.

There was just so much going on. And, going by my tiebreaker standards, the Canucks also finally beat the Blackhawks earlier in that postseason.

But the actual hockey was hit-or-miss, at least compared to the best-of-the-best. Just look at the anticlimactic Game 7 itself, which the Bruins won 4-0.

Still, that was some wild stuff.

1. Kings beat Blackhawks in best NHL playoff series of the decade (2013-14)

As tempted as I was to go with riots and deflated tires, the epic back-and-forth between two of the best teams of the decade ultimately swayed me.

From 2009-10 through 2014-15, the Blackhawks and Kings won five of the six Stanley Cups. That 2014 Western Conference Final ended up being the peak of that rivalry.

From a Game 5 that required double overtime, to a Game 7 that also stretched beyond regulation, the hockey was truly sublime.

No doubt, the Kings pulling off the fourth-ever “reverse sweep” helped sway me, too. Los Angeles didn’t just come back from a 3-0 deficit against the Sharks. They absolutely roared back, winning those last four games by a combined score of 19-5.

Drew Doughty claimed he saw fear in the eyes of his Sharks opponents. Can you blame him for saying that after such a rally?

It turned out that the Kings would not be denied that postseason, and I cannot deny that their battle with the Blackhawks was the best of a strong decade of playoff series for the NHL.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
Teams with the best long-term outlook
Looking at the top 2020 free agents
Best 2019-20 free agent signings
The most underrated players
Our favorite classic Costacos Brothers hockey posters
How to spice up a possible virtual 2020 NHL Draft

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.

Marner to play first Leafs game since Babcock drama (and Tuesday’s mini-meltdown)

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When it comes to a team’s 30th game of an 82-game regular season, you couldn’t ask for much more sizzle than what the Toronto Maple Leafs could provide against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs activated winger Mitch Marner, setting the stage for the crafty winger to play since Nov. 9, when Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An eventful month

To put things mildly, a lot happened since Marner’s unpleasant-looking injury:

That 3-2 shootout loss to the Flyers began what would be a six-game losing streak for the Maple Leafs, and represented the end of the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. It wasn’t, of course, the end of Babcock-related drama, however, as reports surfaced about Babcock playing mind games with Marner during his rookie season, and all that “hardest working players list” entailed.

Since then, there have been a wave of stories about coaches exhibiting abusive behavior (either physically, verbally, or sometimes a mix of the two), with the Calgary Flames parting ways with Bill Peters, Marc Crawford placed on leave from the Blackhawks, and plenty of other reverberations.

Akim Aliu stated that he expects “big changes” around hockey (and the NHL in particular) following a meeting with the league, but time will ultimately tell.

Either way, Babcock’s firing and that rookie-year story should fix even more eyes on Marner than usual, which is saying something considering all of the attention his offseason contract negotiations received.

A fuller view of the new-look Maple Leafs

Sheldon Keefe won his first three games as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the Buds have since stumbled in their last three games, going 1-2-0. Things ended on an extremely sour note on Tuesday, as the Maple Leafs experienced a bit of meltdown late in a 6-1 loss against the Flyers.

Auston Matthews said “we can’t fold like that,” while Keefe agreed that the Maple Leafs let Frederik Andersen out to dry, stating that “hopefully it is the shakeup that we would need.”

It doesn’t figure to be easy. The Avalanche are on a three-game winning streak, boast players like Nazem Kadri who will be pumped to play against his former team in Toronto, and are rested (their last game was on Saturday) while Toronto is closing out a back-to-back. The Maple Leafs have struggled lately in such back-to-back sets, at least stemming from Babcock’s days.

Watching Marner himself

Pension Plan Puppets points out that Marner is coming back basically as early as possible (assuming he doesn’t have any setbacks before Wednesday’s game).

Getting Marner back should be a thrill, and again, a nice opportunity to get a better picture of what GM Kyle Dubas truly envisions as his team now that he doesn’t have to clash with Babcock’s competing style.

But how close to 100 percent will Marner be? While his most treasured ability is his world-class playmaking, Marner is also known for outstanding edgework and agility, using his elusiveness to thrive as a smaller player (rather than Nathan MacKinnon-class speed). You have to wonder if recovering from a high-ankle sprain might at least hinder some of his skating strength.

That said, Marner will still have the vision and anticipation that makes him such a great passer. Jake Muzzin pointed out the way Marner processes the game, and while there could be a bit of rust there, chances are he’ll give Toronto another gear.

“His reads without the puck,” Muzzin said when asked where Marner’s hockey IQ really shines. “I feel like he’s one step ahead of the puck out there when he’s on. He’s got great vision with the puck, but picking guys and reading passes before they happen, he’s right up there with the best.”

Maybe the Maple Leafs will be a little tired on Tuesday, and maybe Marner won’t be quite there physically, but it still feels like we’ll get a better idea of what this team (and player) is capable of now that Babcock is no longer in the picture.

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.

Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

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It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Brian Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

***

Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

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.