Fan-free playoff hockey still proving plenty intense

Fan-free playoff hockey still proving plenty intense

Staging games in empty arenas after a virus-forced hiatus of more than four months, the NHL skated into this unprecedented post-season with plenty of questions about just how intense the action on the ice would be.

Four days into a most unusual Stanley Cup tournament, this much is clear: Playoff hockey is still playoff hockey, even without the roar of the crowd. The Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks, their qualifying round series even at one win apiece, have proven as much.

Both contests at Rogers Place in Edmonton have been testy, with the two teams jawing at each other at the end of Game 2.

“The guys play the exact same way. I spoke to several people before this, and they said, ‘Do you think it’s going to be playoff hockey?’” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “These guys, they’re kids, and even if they’re older guys, they’re kids. They’re playing the game for the right reasons. They’re the best in the world for a reason, because they absolutely love to play and they love to compete, and when that puck’s dropped in a playoff atmosphere, we’re all battling to win the Stanley Cup, which they’ve thought about their entire lives. There’s going to be that excitement level and there’s going to be that battle level that we’ve seen already.”

Even more strange with this post-season has been the bubble-city setup that has stationed both of these teams at the Sutton Place Hotel. The Wild routinely walk by the Canucks on their way to eat.

“It’s definitely different. You’re in an absolute war with a team, and then you ride the elevator with them,” Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers said on Wednesday.

Game 3 is on Thursday (2:30 p.m. EDT, NHL Network). The Canucks are banged up, with four forwards iffy. Tyler Toffoli and Adam Gaudette were hurt in Game 1 and held out of Game 2. Michael Ferland and Antoine Roussel left Game 2 with injuries.

The Canucks will likely go as far as their talented top-six group of forwards will take them, with the “Lotto Line” of J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser making a significant impact so far.

Pettersson has impressed the Canucks with his tenacity, too, the frequent target of not-so-friendly hits from the Wild.

“I’m always impressed with his skill level, and I’ve been anxiously waiting to see how he does with this type of hockey, and it’s been impressive so far,” Canucks coach Travis Green said.

In other games on Thursday:

MAPLE LEAFS vs. BLUE JACKETS, series tied 1-1 (8 p.m. EDT, NBC Sports Network)

The Toronto Maple Leafs will play the rest of their qualifying round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets without defenceman Jake Muzzin, who returned on Wednesday to the team hotel after his discharge from a hospital. He was hurt in a scary on-ice collision late in their 3-0 win in Game 2 on home ice at Scotiabank Arena.

Muzzin took a crosscheck and fell chest-first onto the legs of Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand behind the Toronto goal and was down for more than 10 minutes on his back before being taken off on a stretcher. Muzzin was alert and able to move all of his limbs.

“He’s a mentally strong guy, a big tough kid, so we’re just hoping for a speedy recovery,” said teammate Kyle Clifford.

Martin Marincin practiced in a pairing with Tyson Barrie on Wednesday, on track to crack Toronto’s top six on the blue line with Muzzin out.

Columbus is 0 for 6 on the power play through two games.

FLAMES vs. JETS, Flames lead 2-1 (10:30 p.m. EDT, CNBC)

Another young team that has not won a post-season series in five years, the Calgary Flames have the Winnipeg Jets on the ropes with the chance to advance with a late-night win in Edmonton.

Calgary has scored 12 goals over the first three games of the qualifying round series, with two apiece from Mikael Backlund, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm. The focus for Game 4 will be to “kill the will” of Winnipeg, said defenceman Derek Ryan. The Flames beat the Jets 6-2 in Game 3.

“It’s something we can put in the bank for ourselves as a young hockey club trying to find its way come playoff time and draw some confidence from it,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said, “but also draw a little bit of comfort knowing that we’re able to put a game like that on the ice when we need to.”

There are also two round-robin games on the schedule for Thursday, with the top four seeds in each conference in the process of being settled this week. The Washington Capitals play the Philadelphia Flyers (4 p.m. EDT, NBC Sports Network) in Toronto, and the Vegas Golden Knights facing the St. Louis Blues (6:30 p.m. EDT, NHL Network) in Edmonton.

___

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL

Dave Campbell, The Associated Press

NHL

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