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Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely

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It’s Wednesday, April 8 and tonight we should have been parking ourselves in front of our televisions or gathering inside hockey rinks across the U.S. and Canada to watch playoff hockey.

Instead, we wait. We don’t know when the NHL will resume its 2019-20 schedule and we don’t know how they will complete it if playing out the regular season isn’t an option. Since the NHL pause on March 12,  various formats thrown out, garnering a myriad of responses. If time prevents the league from holding a normal postseason, they’ll have to be creative.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told Mike Tirico on NBCSN’s Lunch Talk Live Tuesday. “We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light — and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can’t play and others places where you can. We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in, nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined what we do by how much time there is because we have next season to focus on as well.”

So what are possibly looking at for a right-to-the-playoffs scenario?

Points percentage

Here are your Round 1 playoff matchups if points percentage was to determine the eight teams in each conference:

Bruins vs. Islanders
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Flyers vs. Penguins

Blues vs. Flames
Avalanche vs. Stars
Golden Knight vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Canucks

There are some juicy pairings in that lot, but what of those teams who missed the cut? Surely the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Panthers, Jets, Wild, and Coyotes would like to see the field expanded considering the unique situation we find ourselves in.

“I don’t think it would be right if we’re left out,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. “We’re close to a playoff spot and have 13 games left. We just started playing as well as we did before the All-Star break, the bye week. We were feeling pretty good, playing with confidence.”

If you stick with the traditional series format, the timing of everything would affect series lengths. Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have been vocal about not having the 2020-21 season interrupted, so if we’re talking about July or August playoff hockey, we can’t have four rounds of best-of-sevens.

Tournament

P.K. Subban said he’d love to see a 31-team tournament to decide the 2020 Stanley Cup winner — and why wouldn’t he when you glance at the Devils’ place in the Eastern Conference standings. But while including every team in the league isn’t the best idea, using this opportunity to be different opens the door for that kind of format if there isn’t time for a full four rounds of playoffs.

Like the points percentage idea, a tournament would require some sort of cut off point to fill the field. Do you forget conferences and just go with an overall Sweet 16 and best-of-three series? Would it be ideal to include 24 teams and work in byes for those atop the standings?

Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly told NHL.com’s The Rink podcast that he wants a full four-round playoff.

“I know you can do it in a different way, but if it was up to me, from my time being in the League and other guys I’ve talked to on the team, we really need to protect the integrity of the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s a whole other season in its own so I think it’s got to be a full, best-of-7 for four rounds, for sure. It’ll be interesting to see how they make that work, how you can condense it to still give the teams fighting for a wild card a chance, but I think you have to have the full thing.

“It’ll be tough and obviously I don’t have all the answers, but I feel it really protects the integrity of the Stanley Cup. It is extremely difficult. Having to beat a team four times is not an easy thing to do, and I just feel we need to have that.”

Neutral sites

An NHL playoff or tournament set up with games played in either one city or multiple locations? That’s been discussed with locations such as Buffalo and Grand Forks, North Dakota serving as potential options. However many teams, isolated in a city, away from their families. The league would love the unique aspect to such a conclusion to a season, but would the players? 

As with the Major League Baseball idea that was floated on Tuesday or the NBA’s in Las Vegas, what would the logistics look like for the NHL? Would there be fans? How long of a period of time would the players and staff be away from their families in such a scenario? Will there be tests upon arrival? What if a player or staff member contracts the virus? Will there be an expansion of rosters?

And that’s just with the logistics involving the teams. What about the people working at the arena(s)? And should medical personnel be used in this case and not be assisting hospitals?

As Bettman said Tuesday, there’s too much uncertainty to have an idea when the NHL will be given a green light to resume games. The planning needs to be done for all situations once that happens, and more and more it’s looking like if playoffs do happen, it will be a unique format that wins out for this special circumstance.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

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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.

PHT remembers video games: EA Sports’ NHL ’98 and its unmatched intro video

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Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look at NHL ’98, one of the most interesting entries in EA Sports’ series.

NHL ’98 won’t dominate “best sports games ever” tournaments like early entries in the series. NHL ’98 doesn’t corner the market on hockey video game nostalgia. It’s a bit niche for widespread warm-and-fuzzies.

Even so, NHL ’98 stands as one of the most noteworthy entries in the series. And it’s certainly one of the quirkiest.

(Note: this post discusses the Playstation version of NHL ’98. The entry is also noteworthy for being the last released on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.)

EA finally found its Playstation-era footing with NHL ’98

Asking a video game company to pump out an annual sports title is already asking a lot. Asking them to make a jump from console generations borders on audacious, especially around this time, when developers were still trying to figure out the whole “polygon” thing.

The NHL series’ stumbles backed up that notion. Most dramatically, EA Sports decided not to release NHL ’96 on Playstation for quality reasons. (See page 16 of this PDF of GamePro magazine. Heh.)

The company managed to pump out NHL ’97 for Sony’s world-beating console. Not only did the game capitalize on the Panthers’ stunning run, but they even incorporated John Vanbiesbrouck’s mask design into the disc art:

NHL '98 big step up from 97 except for disc art
Still pretty rad. Via EA Sports/Moby Games

Unfortunately, playing NHL ’97 was only slightly more enjoyable than taking refuge from a barrage of plastic rats. OK, that’s unfair, but critics backed up my teenage memories of being a little disappointed.

(That said, I’m bummed that a cursory video search didn’t turn up any of John Davidson’s pre-game analysis videos. Those were mind-blowing in 1996/97, let me tell you.)

Really, it wasn’t until NHL ’98 that EA Sports really got things right on the PS1. Not only was it well-received at the time, but Gamespot’s Brian Ekberg thought enough of the title to revisit it in 2005. That isn’t a small feat considering the churn of yearly sports releases (especially back when you might *gasp* see more than one major title per sport).

Quirks that made it memorable

As much as fun gameplay made NHL ’98 sing, the game really took advantage of CD technology to up the presentation.

(Some of the menu music will still trickle into my head.)

The biggest impression comes from the rocking and deeply silly intro video. Do yourself a favor and watch that embedded clip above this post’s headline.

To my delight, Game Informer’s Matthew Kato looked back at that ridiculous(ly great) intro in a 2018 article, catching up with composer Jeff van Dyck. Van Dyck provided a fun peek behind the curtain on making that video and the game’s music in general.

“[Producer Ken Sayler] said something like, ‘There should be a voice in here, an announcer, saying some stuff. Can you write some stuff?” Van Dyck said of composing music for the intro. “And I said, ‘I’m not really sure what he should say,’ and basically [Sayler] just rattled off what you hear in that intro. It was very flippant, the way he issued it. I think he was expecting me to re-write it, but at the time I just went, ‘Well, it sounds good enough to me.'”

And that’s how we got gems like “Are you afraid of the masked man?” in NHL ’98.

It’s all silly, yet the footage is remarkable enough that it just works. Even the font is pretty funny.

NHL ’98 featured avid gamer Marc Crawford

While Van Dyck went on to other EA projects, the NHL series and other sports games leaned on licensed tracks, making his compositions fairly unique for the series.

Also unusual: getting an active head coach involved in development. As you can see from issue 102 of GamePro (page 90), Marc Crawford consulted for the game. The article also describes Crawford as an “avid gamer,” which is just priceless. Seeing Peter Forsberg as a game’s cover star was a rare treat, too.

While the SNES and Genesis versions of NHL ’98 represented the end of the 16-bit era for the EA hockey games, the PS1 version might be considered an evolutionary leap. It wasn’t the first 3D-ish or PS1 game (again, that goes to NHL ’97), but it took the series a long way.

It even took the NHL games to places they’d never go again.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

  • NHL Championship 2000, Fox’s rare foray into hockey video games, starring Mike Modano.
  • NHL Slapshot, a Wii video game with a small plastic hockey stick peripheral that even Wayne Gretzky found delightful.

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 on status of ’19-20 NHL season: ‘We’re viewing all of our options’

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman appeared on Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico Tuesday afternoon to discuss the status of the 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think right now there’s too much uncertainty,” Bettman said when asked if the weekend call featuring major sports commissioners with President Trump changed a potential target date if things improved. “Hopefully we’ll all know more by the end of April.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options. We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light — and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can’t play and others places where you can. We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in, nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined what we do by how much time there is because we have next season to focus on as well.”

There’s been recent reports that the NHL has been exploring the idea of holding games at neutral sites, but that’s all part of the planning process at the moment, according to Bettman.

“Our clubs, if nothing, are extraordinarily competitive, and whatever we do has to be fair, which is why there’s been some public speculation in the media about neutral site game in remote parts of the country,” he said. “That’s just part of considering all the potential options, depending on how we find the circumstances. But when you talk about fairness, we also have issues about if we get to play a playoffs, who gets in if we can’t complete the regular season. We had seven teams on the bubble and all they think they would have had a chance. We have to deal with the lottery and order of selection in the draft.

“The best thing, and the easiest thing, would be if at some point we could complete the regular season and then go into the playoffs as we normally do. We understand that that may not be possible and that’s why we’re considering every conceivable alternative to deal with whatever the eventuality is. Again, it doesn’t even pay to speculate because nobody in any of the sports knows enough now to make those profound decisions.”

You can catch the full interview with Bettman in the video above.

Here’s the Lunch Talk Live schedule for the rest of this week:

Wednesday 4/8
12:15 p.m. ET – Al Michaels and Doc Emrick
12:30 – PGA Golfer Justin Thomas
12:50 – Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett

Thursday 4/9
12:50 p.m. ET – Keith Jones and Eddie Olczyk

Friday 4/10
12:15 p.m. ET – Michele Tafoya
12:40 – Dan Hicks and Paul Azinger
12:50 – Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle

Follow the show on Twitter at: @LunchTalkNBCSN

Lunch Talk Live will air weekdays at noon ET on NBCSN and stream on NBCSports.com here and the NBC Sports app. Select content and interviews will additionally be hosted on NBC Sports’ YouTube channel and social media platforms.

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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.

Wash your hands while an NHL announcer does play-by-play

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One of the biggest reminders that we’ve all heard in the last month in regards to eliminating germs has been to wash your hands. Popular options include singing “Happy Birthday” or picking out a verse from your favorite song.

Singing “Happy Birthday” can get old, of course, especially if you’re scrubbing your paws several times a day during this COVID-19 pandemic. While doing just that a few weeks back Matt Sammon, a veteran broadcaster who was the Director of Broadcasting for the Lightning from 2008-2019, had an idea pop into his head. Wanting to come up with a unique way to ensure you’re washing your hands the appropriate amount of time (20 seconds!), he had the idea to use sports play-by-play announcers.

That is when “Clean Home Team” was born.

Sammon reached out to the Lightning and recruited the team’s radio voice, Dave Mishkin, to record the first clip (listen here). He then used that “pilot” to pitch the idea to the other 30 NHL teams to try and get their announcers on board.

[MORE: How Bauer is making medical shields to battle coronavirus]

Currently, six other NHL broadcasters have contributed since Mishkin: Matt Loughlin (New Jersey, clip), Steve Carroll and Dan Wood (Anaheim, clip), Derek Wills (Calgary, clip), Brendan Batchelor (Vancouver, clip), and Joe Beninati (Washington, clip). A French version from Senators radio play-by-play announcer Nicolas St. Pierre will be available soon.

“The different voices, the different way that people are approaching this, it’s pretty fun to listen to them all as I’m putting them together,” Sammon told NBC Sports this week.

The clips are all market specific when it comes to the sound effects, so you’ll hear the proper goal horns for each team in the background.

Sammon said he’s reached out to every NHL team to get one broadcaster involved and is hoping to include announcers from other sports as well. Fans can also submit their suggestions, whether it be someone from a minor league, amateur, or high school team.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: If NHL returns, could games take place in … North Dakota?

NHL 2019-20 North Dakota
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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.

• Elliotte Friedman details North Dakota as a possible host city in potential season resumption scenarios. Friedman notes that Ralph Engelstad Arena might work, in part because of the state’s low population density. The NHL should consider Engelstad’s controversies if they go probe deeper on a North Dakota plan, though. (Sportsnet)

• Bruce Garrioch expands on some of the issues the NHL and NHLPA are facing, stemming in part from Gary Bettman’s weekly conference call with the Board of Governors. Garrioch provides some interesting details about how players might try to limit the damage from big escrow challenges, and other issues that need to be cleared up. (Ottawa Sun)

• In the latest edition of his The Color of Hockey feature, William Douglas explores how Hockey Is For Everyone programs are helping rinks and schools adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. (NHL.com)

• Travis Yost analyzes the continued decline of “workhorse” goalies in the NHL. Yost shares some fascinating stats, including that Connor Hellebuyck and Carey Price are the only goalies to start 75 percent (or more) of their teams’ games in 2019-20. Could these trends eventually push No. 1 goalie salaries down, and backups’ cap hits up? Certainly plausible, and possibly more sensible than putting all your eggs in one goalie-shaped basket. (TSN)

• Sabres coach Ralph Krueger believes that Rasmus Dahlin‘s defensive game keeps going “up a notch.” Frankly, I’d argue that Dahlin’s ice time needs to go up multiple notches. After averaging 21:09 TOI per game as a rookie, Dahlin’s down by almost two minutes this season (19:18). While that climbed a bit toward the end of 2019-20, it’s baffling that Krueger hesitates to send Dahlin out on the ice at least as much as Dahlin was out there in 2018-19. Maybe such rave reviews will translate to more reps in year three? (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• You might say that I accused Krueger of under-coaching in the tidbit above. Barry Trotz, meanwhile, wonders if he over-coached his Islanders at times this season. (Newsday)

• John Barr compares 2019-20 attendance numbers to what we saw in previous seasons. Plenty of interesting graphs and charts to chew on if you’re interested in sellouts and other figures. (NHL to Seattle)

Connor McDavid and Gary Roberts teamed up for a video series to try to help kids find creative ways to stay fit indoors. Good stuff from ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. (ESPN)

• Ranking the Nashville Predators’ jersey designs, from worst to best. Yes, mustard ranked low on the list. (Hockey By Design)

• Binging TV shows during the pause? Milan Lucic will provide staunch competition. He consumed Game of Thrones in just 19 days. That’s 73 episodes, and that wasn’t a 22-minute sitcom … although the travel logic of the latter episodes might’ve deserved a laugh track. (TSN)

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.