NHL teams are taking different approaches to crossing the US-Canada border during the first round of the playoffs with the US still requiring a negative COVID-19 test for all passengers arriving on international flights.
The Edmonton Oilers flew to Vancouver and took buses into Washington state before flying to Los Angeles to avoid US virus testing requirements, and the Toronto Maple Leafs took buses to Buffalo, N.Y., before flying to Florida for the same reason. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, and Calgary Flames all opted to test and fly direct when their respective series shifted from Canada to the US late this week.
Choose your own travel adventure has become the latest pandemic wrinkle to the fight for the Stanley Cup. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL did not make any particular recommendations but has no problem with the creative arrangements.
“We have no objection or issue with them utilizing the rules and policies that have been put in place by the applicable health authorities to their maximum advantage,” Daly said in an email Friday.
The situation is nothing like the past two years when cross-border travel was a major headache for the NHL. In 2020, the league held a 24-team postseason in Toronto and Edmonton with strict quarantines in place and no fans. Last year, facing uncertainty over border restrictions, the league temporarily realigned its divisions for a shortened season, with all seven Canadian teams playing only each other through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said players were involved in choosing the itinerary for what amounted to a longer trip. The Oilers spent a night in a Vancouver hotel before crossing the border and flying from Bellingham, Washington, to California on Thursday ahead of Game 3 against the Kings on Friday night.
“I think what you want to do is you want to make the best decision possible for your group and was one that we gave a lot of thought to,” Woodcroft said. “The players are energized by how we traveled and being in the California sunshine.”
The Oilers have the only unvaccinated player in the NHL playoffs: Josh Archibald, whose cardiologist was able to secure a medical exemption for the 29-year-old forward because of a heart condition known as myocarditis. Archibald played in only eight games during the regular season but is available in the playoffs on either side of the border and was in the lineup for Game 2 when Edmonton evened its series against the Kings.
The Maple Leafs’ trip to Buffalo took only a couple of hours before flying to Florida. It’s the same path the NBA’s Toronto Raptors took during their first-round series against Philadelphia.
The Lightning, Kings, Stars, and Flames all chose COVID-19 testing and a direct flight to enter the US
“We didn’t cross the border by bus,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Friday before Game 3 against Toronto. “Everybody passed the tests.”
Penguins’ Casey DeSmith out for season
The rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff run won’t include goaltender Casey DeSmith.
Coach Mike Sullivan said DeSmith underwent core surgery on Friday morning and will miss the rest of the postseason.
The surgery comes three days after DeSmith exited in the second overtime of Pittsburgh’s 4-3 triple-overtime victory over the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their first-round series. DeSmith entered the playoffs as Pittsburgh’s top goaltender with All-Star Tristan Jarry sidelined with a lower-body injury.
DeSmith’s injury leaves Louis Domingue as the starter as the best-of-seven series shifts to Pittsburgh for Game 3 on Saturday night.
Domingue picked up the victory in Game 1 when the Penguins won 5:58 into the third extra period. The well-traveled 30-year-old Domingue made 35 saves in a 5-2 loss in Game 2.
Sullivan hasn’t ruled out Jarry’s return at some point in the series. Jarry hasn’t played since injuring his foot on April 15.
While Jarry has been rehabbing off the ice, there is no timetable on when he may be available, leaving Alex D’Orio as Pittsburgh’s primary backup as the Penguins try to advance out of the first round for the first time since 2018.
Capitals struggling with goalie choice
The moment Vitek Vanecek let in the Florida Panthers’ third goal in the Capitals’ eventual 5-1 Game 2 defeat Thursday night was the moment Washington’s never-ending goalie saga reared its head once again.
Mason Marchment delivered a dart from the right circle that found the space between Vanecek’s pads at the 3:11 mark of the second period, putting Florida up, 3-1. The goal came just 27 seconds after center Nicklas Backstrom scored to cut the Panthers’ lead in half.
It was a momentum-swinging goal, a back-breaker, and one any goalie — namely Vanecek — simply can’t allow if the Capitals want a shot at defeating Florida in the first-round series. The goal was the first of three straight for the Panthers en route to a victory that knotted the series at a game apiece.
“That was kind of tough, actually, mentally,” Backstrom said of Florida’s third goal. “After that, after the second period, in the third, they had a 5-1 lead. Nothing to say about that. That being said, we’ve got a tight series going back to Washington. Looking forward to playing in front of our fans.”
Vanecek can’t shoulder the blame for all five goals, with his defense breaking down on several occasions. However, as has been the case all season, his inability to make stops on routine shots precipitated his downfall.
Game 3 is Saturday afternoon at Capital One Arena following an off day for the team, and Coach Peter Laviolette likely will not reveal his starting goaltender until a couple hours before puck drop. Laviolette said Friday morning that Washington will have to “evaluate everything” from Game 2, including if they want to make a change in net.
Vanecek, who made 30 saves in Washington’s Game 1 win Tuesday, could very well be the starter Saturday, despite being pulled in Game 2. He allowed five goals on 18 shots through two periods, but still seems to provide a more consistent option in net.
Ilya Samsonov played the entire third period Thursday and stopped all 17 shots he faced. While the majority of them were not high-danger attempts, it was an encouraging result for the 25-year-old.
“I thought he came in and played well, because I don’t think we played very well in the third at all, so I thought he came in and made some saves,” Laviolette said of Samsonov. “They had a lot of shots from the outside. He got to feel the puck, so that was good.”
Laviolette, who has expressed a desire for a true No. 1 goalie in the postseason, could go back to Vanecek for Game 3, though. Washington spent the regular season rotating between Vanecek and Samsonov, but Laviolette and his coaching staff could decide to pick one and commit now.
Laviolette said he gave Vanecek the starter role in the playoff opener because of his “body of work” during the regular season.
“You’re just doing your job and trying to stop the pucks and help the team,” Vanecek said of his mind-set during the postseason. “I know we have a good team and we can score goals so I always trust them.”
Samsonov has had a tougher time in consecutive starts, but fared well in his three postseason starts last year.
He has also risen to the occasion against top-tier opponents this season, but his inconsistent play — or the possibility of an in-game spiral after a bad goal — remains a glaring issue. When Samsonov is at his best, it’s when his confidence is high. His solid third period Thursday could help put him in the right head space for a possible Game 3 start.