Last month, the National Hockey League and ESL Gaming came together to run the first ever NHL Player Gaming Challenge pitting players from all 31 teams, as well as a representative from NHL Seattle, against each other in NHL 20, on PlayStation.
Prior to puck drop Huberdeau suggested he may be looking to avenge his loss to Kuznetsov in the 2012 World Juniors semifinal round. Kuznetsov was named the MVP of the tournament, leading all skaters in scoring with 6 goals and 7 assists over seven games as Russia went on to win a silver medal. Huberdeau finished with 1 goal and 8 assists through six games, taking home the bronze.
Early in the first frame, after a couple of saves by Sergei Bobrovsky, Aaron Ekblad took control of the puck in the Panthers zone and quickly dished off to Huberdeau who broke out on a 2-1 with Evgenii Dadonov. Alex Ovechkin raced back to take Dadonov out of the play while Huberdeau waited out the diving defender then roofed one short side, top corner over Braden Holtby, putting the Panthers up 1-0, 90 seconds in.
The actual Huberdeau scored on his first ever shot in the NHL, as NHL 20 Huberdeau, controlled by his real-life counterpart, scored on his first shot in the Players Challenge Tournament. How meta.
Huberdeau on his goal, “I usually pass but you know, in this game I guess I got a good shot so I gotta use it.”
Florida continued to control play early as two minutes later Ekblad got behind Washington’s defense, but lost the puck in tight before he could get a shot away. Keith Yandle pinching in scooped the loose puck from near the right FO dot and fired it on net. Dadonov swiped at it looking for a rebound, but Holtby was able to cover for the whistle. On the ensuing FO Erik Haula cleanly won the draw sending the puck back to Anton Stralman, who fired a high shot through traffic just wide of the net.
With Washington unable to get anything going in the offensive zone, the Panthers kept the pressure on. Brett Connolly would fire off a sneaky shot with a couple of defenders right up on him that Holtby knocked away high blocker side. Frank Vatrano sent Noel Acciari up the left wing and unable to get a step on the defenders, he would pull a nifty little half-spin move at the face-off dot, passing back to Vatrano in the slot for a blast that deflected off a defender’s body in front of Holtby.
Washington would get its best opportunity at the 11-minute mark of the first with an odd man rush of their own. The puck carrier, Lars Eller, and Carl Hagelin would flank around opposite sides of MacKenzie Weegar and Mark Pysyk, getting in behind both defensemen for a 2 on 0. Eller kept the puck and drove to the net only to run out of real estate and get stood up in a collision with Bobrovsky. No call was made on the play.
Florida got right back on offense as the play went back up the ice. A little give and go, between Brian Boyle and Lucas Wallmark was unsuccessful, but Boyle kept the puck alive in the corner, getting it back to the point where Pysyk would fire across to Weegar. With a wide-open shooting lane, Weegar took too long getting the shot off, as it got blocked by a Capitals forward coming over.
At the 15-minute mark real world Huberdeau would call out Kuznetsov for rimming the puck around the boards behind the net. “You never rim it like that.”, he says. Kuznetsov responds, “Yeah but that’s Hathaway.” Though the replay shows it was in fact Richard Panik who dumped the puck in, the implied sentiment behind the statement would remain unaffected.
At the 17-minute mark Bobrovsky would shine with a flurry of huge saves, showing why (at least electronically) he was brought in on a 7-year, $70M contract. Two Caps forwards got in behind the D in Florida’s zone as Yandle blew his coverage at the blue line with a poor decision to chase the puck and ended up blocking out Ekblad from the play as well. Ovechkin passed across to Jakub Vrana who had an open net look, and despite a strong backcheck from Aleksander Barkov to get in the way, the shot still got through forcing Bob to slide across, legs split, for the save. Vrana would get a second whack at the puck which Bobrovsky kept out before making a third save in tight while still down on the ice, as the puck bounced over to Ovechkin who got a point blank shot off.
“Ah…that’s illegal.”, the real life Kuznetsov would opine.
As the first period came to an end, Florida held an 8-4 advantage in shots as well as a near two-minute advantage in attacking time. During the first intermission real Huberdeau noted he hadn’t done much since, but that it was nice to get an early first goal and that going into the second he could play the trap to protect the lead.
In the middle frame, the Capitals came out flying with three minutes of sustained pressure in the Cats zone. A missed opportunity by meta-Kuzentsov wide open in front of the net with the puck, was their best opportunity to tie the game, but he instead, for no good reason, threw it away to nobody in the corner.
The next four and a half minutes of the period saw the two teams trade broken plays with intercepting passes, blocking shots and breaking up rushes before Nicklas Backstrom took the puck in behind the Panthers defensemen. Bobrovsky kicked his right leg out for a save on the low shot and the Panthers would swarm to clear the puck.
The play would go back up the ice and Wallmark would cash in to extend Florida’s lead to 2-0. Starting the rush himself, Wallmark passed off to Vatrano, who dished to Huberdeau in the slot. Wallmark had driven to an open space and took a pass from Hubs, scoring high glove on Holtby. The Caps netminder didn’t even have time to flash the leather.
Real Kuznetsov would argue interference from Players Challenge host Alex Faust (current Los Angeles Kings play by play announcer and one-time potential heir to Jeopardy hosting duties) who was asking him about the Capital’s own gaming initiative at the time of the goal.
Vatrano would put Florida up 3-0 on a penalty shot twelve and a half minutes into the second. Michal Kempny got a stick between Vatrano’s skates causing him to stumble. It was a close, but proper call by the officials, and Vatrano would make Washington pay by catching Holtby with a head fake and then wristing one far side.
The Capitals would get on the board with four minutes left in the period when Backstrom took a pass from Hathaway (yes, this time it was Hathaway) and blasted a shot past Bobrovsky from above the right faceoff circle.
A minute later Ekblad would absolutely crush Dmitry Orlov near the Florida blue line. The Capitals D-man was caught with his head down trying to skate the puck out to the center of the zone before Ekblad shouldered him hard, sending him sliding across the ice into the boards and nearly taking out the linesman. The Panthers got a 3 on 2 rush out of the hit with Connolly taking the puck up the ice, Ekblad and Mike Hoffman with him, but they were unable to capitalize on the odd-man rush.
With 22 seconds left in the frame Barkov would draw a tripping penalty after putting on a puck possession clinic. Carrying the puck into the zone, Barkov squeezed through a check along the boards by Washington defenseman Nick Jensen, then stopped up short and lost two Capitals skaters at the side of the net turning and skating it out front. He was nearly tripped as he did, throwing off his opportunity to shoot. Instead, he curled around the crowd that was forming in front, losing another defender, and swung around behind the net. After coming back up the boards he used more quick stops and tight turns to shake off two other defenders working his way back to the center of the zone, before finally being tripped again, this time going down on one knee and getting the call. Barkov had spent 57.3 seconds skating around the Caps zone with possession to that point.
Real Kuznetsov noted the eerie similarity to real Barkov’s abilities with the puck, including his propensity to forget that he can and should shoot.
Washington nearly squeaked in a shorthanded goal with one second left on the clock as a five-hole shot in close from Tom Wilson had Bobrovsky looking behind him. Bob came up big in the second as despite being outscored 2-1 in the period, the Capitals controlled much of the play going 5 of 7 in the face-off circle, having a full minute of attack time more than the Panthers and out-shooting them 8-3.
Florida started the third still on the power play with meta-Kuzy in the box for tripping Barkov, and they struck quick, scoring 36 seconds in with Huberdeau and Barkov drawing assists on Dadonov’s goal.
Shortly after, Washington scored on a nice pass across the net, firing one in past a sprawling Bobrovsky. The game time warped over the commercial break that followed, picking up with 7 seconds left in the period – just after Wallmark scored his second of the game, on assists from Haula and Connolly.
The game would finish with Florida taking the first contest by a 7-3 score.
The second game was a tighter affair to start. The first period finished 0-0 with offensive stats fairly even for both teams, but Washington clearly had more high danger chances. Bobrovsky was up to the task keeping the game even heading into the second.
The first goal of the game wouldn’t be scored until the 13:45 mark of the second, as Haula was stopped by Holtby on a breakaway, but he was able to follow the puck to the boards and throw it out front to Acciari, who fired a one-timer top left corner.
Washington would tie the game on a goal by T. J. Oshie as he potted one into a wide-open net on a sweet pass across from Backstrom with four minutes left in the period.
The Capitals started the third strong, but Florida would finally retake the lead six minutes in, as Mike Matheson would skate in from the point and fire a low shot from the top of the faceoff circle beating Holtby on the far side. Assists would go to Dadonov and Haula.
Florida would add to the lead as Acciari sent Colton Sceviour in alone, who got one past Holtby with under 10 minutes to play, but 14 seconds later Kuznetsov would use himself to pull Washington back within one.
Bobrovsky would then absolutely rob Washington from tying the game, getting across to take an open net away from Backstrom on a backdoor pass across with 8 minutes to play. As is often the way in hockey, the play went back up the ice the other way with Connolly completely undressing the Caps D before dishing off to Vatrano sitting at the side of the open net for an easy tap in, restoring the two goal lead with 7 minutes to go.
The Panthers would blow it open with 5 minutes remaining. On a 2 on 0, Boyle would dish across to Dominic Toninato for his first of the tournament.
Power would go out on the connection with four minutes left in the game and the Panthers up by three. After some discussion among the officials and the captains, it was determined the game would be called and the score deemed official, giving Florida a 2-0 series lead in the mini tournament.
“It’s fair.”, real Kuznetsov was heard saying.
With Florida having officially won the best of three series by taking the first two games, the third was played out for fun as a 3 on 3, two-minute periods, first to five goals wins format. It was the first appearance of this format in the NHL Player Gaming Challenge.
Huberdeau would score with his meta-self, once again on the first shot of the game, but Washington would come right back as Ekblad was knocked down at center ice and John Carlson drove to the Panthers net hard, forcing one in past Bobrovsky. Washington would score their second goal quickly after Ekblad was once again flattened at center ice leading to the Caps possession in the Panthers zone. This was the first time in the tournament Washington held a lead.
Washington would pot two more quick ones to go up 4-1 before Florida would get one back on a one-timer by meta-Huberdeau, from Barkov. Real Huberdeau would make a game of it clawing back to 4-3 and then peppering Holtby with shots until he tied it 4-4 with ten seconds remaining in the second. Unfortunately, a few seconds into the third period Washington would put it away as real Kuznetsov would collect his own rebound and put it away over a sprawling Bobrovsky for the 5-4 win.
Tournament Final – Panthers win the series 2 games to 1
Game notes – It’s a fun little one-off, watching NHL players play video games, but it only goes so far. There was a fair bit of dead air as the interaction between the players and host had its entertaining moments, and it’s less so awkward silences. I haven’t watched the other match-ups yet and it’s entirely possible the generally quiet Huberdeau and the big smiling, but also quiet Kuznetsov are just not destined to be a main event level pairing for this type of forum. Perhaps in-game chatter and chirping and ribbing flowed more in other matches.
That said it did have its moments. Huberdeau learned about Kuznetsov having two young kids and his inability to go home during the pandemic due to that being too complicated for his family. At one point, host Faust noted he wasn’t seeing much of Ovechkin on a Capitals power play to which Kuznetsov responded that he’d benched him. Ovie did appear on the ice shortly after the comment with Kuznetsov seeming surprised with his ability to skate backwards.
Body language was interesting to analyze as I got the impression that despite easily taking the first two games of the series, Huberdeau did not like being down in, and losing the 3 on 3 match. Nobody likes losing, but I think he was quietly frustrated. As well, I could almost picture the thought bubble over the silent Huberdeau’s head when meta-Bobrovsky made a bunch of big saves prompting real Kuznetsov to point out how good Bob is. Huberdeau’s thought bubble may have read, “If only he was playing this good for us this season.”
It was interesting to hear, when talking about chirping on the ice in the real world, Kuznetsov suggested Bobrovsky isn’t overly susceptible to it, that he’s quiet and focused on the ice and doesn’t talk much, but that Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is a guy that you can chirp and get going.
Most exciting for myself, being Canadian, talk of the 2022 Olympics was brought up as Faust mentioned a line combination being considered for Team Canada that would see Huberdeau skating with Connor McDavid and Nathan McKinnon. Huberdeau suggested he wasn’t sure he could keep up with those guys and that some power skating may be in order as preparation.
Overall, I think the NHL Players Gaming Challenge was a fun little endeavor, and not to be forgotten was that it raised $100,000 for the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 relief efforts. Anything that offers the public a little entertainment as well as some financial assistance to a cause in need, is a win.