Why Team USA should (and shouldn't) win back-to-back gold medals at the 2011 WJC

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jackcampbellposes.jpgDespite the fact that home ice advantage may largely be nixed because Buffalo is so close to Canada, many believe that Team USA will be mild favorites for a repeat gold medal performance in the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships. If they accomplished that goal, they’d only be the fourth team to win back-to-back golds in the tournament’s 34 year history.

Gare Joyce put together a list of five reasons why Team USA should win and countered with three areas of weakness to boot. I’ll go over each reason, with a few excerpts from his article.

Joyce’s No. 1 reason was returning goalie Jack Campbell (first photo). Campbell came in relief of Mike Lee to help the U.S. team win it all in an overtime thriller against Canada in front of a boisterous Canadian crowd in the last tournament.

I’ll admit that the main reason I spotlighted this segment was to share the amusing anecdote Joyce throws in, though.

1. Goalie Jack Campbell
You have to go back to 2003 for the last time a defending champion brought back a goaltender who was more than a backup on his first trip — Russia brought back Andrei Medvedev, a roly-poly kid who ended up eating himself out of hockey. (As an aside, I sat next to him after a practice and he devoured a family-sized bag of potato chips in no more than five minutes.) But even Medvedev’s name has an asterisk attached to it — he started two consecutive gold-medal games but was pulled from the first one.

Somebody somewhere is making “Medvedev is the Russian Martin Brodeur” jokes right now, I can just sense it.

2. Experience
Campbell is the starting point for experience on Team USA but it runs deep onto the roster. In Lake Placid the U.S. roster features six forwards (Ryan Bourque, Jerry D’Amigo, Chris Kreider, Jeremy Morin, Kyle Palmieri and Jason Zucker) and one defenseman (John Ramage) back from the 2010 championship team. Defenseman Cam Fowler wasn’t in attendance but unless the Anaheim Ducks try to force him into the lineup straight out of the draft (a possibility, however wrong-minded) he’ll also be back.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bennettandetem.jpgWhich goes along nicely with the fifth point: chemistry, as Joyce points out this fact: ” … at least four D-men from the 2009 U.S. under-17 team will be in the lineup in Buffalo, with at least five forwards from the 2008 under-17 squad.”

Overall, Joyce points to goalie Campbell, experience, speed, physicality and chemistry as the five reasons why the U.S. team should feel good about its chances. Still, nearly every sports team has some weaknesses and Joyce shares three sticking points.

The first two are the biggest issues for the red, white and blue.

1. Sources of scoring
I asked coach Keith Allain what his greatest concern will be going into Buffalo. He answered the question with a question.

[snip]

2. The middle of the ice
Said one NHL exec in Lake Placid: “I look at center on the U.S. depth chart and wonder who’s going to get the puck to the wingers.”

“Who’s going to score for us?”

So it sounds like the United States team might be a little bit lacking in the “firepower” department. They’ll depend a lot on a beyond-solid group of defensemen and Jack Campbell’s goaltending because the third problem Joyce chose was a lack of a good backup. Joyce points out that the current front-runner is Zane Gothberg, an excellently named but rather green late draft pick of the Boston Bruins.

Despite their flaws, the ’09 version of the US World Juniors team was a blast to watch. We’ll see what kind of group they put on the ice in Buffalo, but fans of American hockey should be very excited about this group as they mature over the next few years. Perhaps the US team’s surprising run to a silver medal will just be the beginning of a great new era in American hockey …

Schultz and Hornqvist will be game-time decisions; Sheary may play

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Justin Schultz and Patric Hornqvist will be game-time decisions for the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena.

That was the word this morning from head coach Mike Sullivan, who said yesterday that it would be “reasonable” to expect the two players to return for Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators.

But the signs from this morning’s optional skate were not particularly promising for either player.

Schultz did not opt to skate, which does not necessarily rule him out for tonight. That said, players returning from injury often choose to test things out the morning of the game, just to be sure they’re ready to go.

Hornqvist did skate; however, he stayed on the ice rather late, likewise putting his status for tonight into doubt.

In other news, Conor Sheary may return to the lineup. Sheary skated this morning and left the ice with the players who are playing, while Josh Archibald skated and stayed on later. That suggests Sheary, a scratch in Games 5 and 6, could replace Archibald.

Oilers reportedly lose Lander to Russia

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After eight years and over 200 games, Edmonton and Anton Lander are parting ways.

Per Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko, Lander has reportedly agreed to join KHL club Ak Bars Kazan. The deal comes after Lander’s two-year, $1.975M pact with the Oilers expired, and he became a restricted free agent.

The 40th overall pick in ’09, Lander had some decent spells in Edmonton. In ’14-15, he racked up 20 points in 38 games — which led to the aforementioned two-year extension — but could never find his niche as a full-time NHLer.

As a result, Lander ended up as one of those guys that racked up points in the AHL, but struggled to replicate similar success in the bigs. Last year, with Bakersfield, he had 25 goals and 55 points in just 42 games.

At 26, he was probably ready to part ways with the only NHL organization he’s ever known. Earlier reports suggested Lander was also mulling a return to his native Sweden.

Report: Rangers goalie Hellberg to sign with Chinese KHL team

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Magnus Hellberg, the once-touted netminder that came to New York from Nashville two years ago, has reportedly left North America to join the KHL’s Chinese club, Red Star Kunlun.

The deal, per Russian news outlet R-Sport, is of the one-year variety and it comes after Hellberg appeared in a pair of games for the Rangers last season, spending most of his time in AHL Hartford.

Hellberg did fare well in his limited action with the Blueshirts, posting a .929 save percentage and 1.53 GAA.

As mentioned above, Hellberg came into the NHL with some fanfare. Selected in the second round (38th overall) by Nashville at the 2011 draft, Hellberg was first goalie off the board, taken one spot ahead of Anaheim’s John Gibson. There was some thought he would be Pekka Rinne‘s eventual successor in goal, but never panned out and was later surpassed by Juuse Saros as the team’s goalie of the future.

In New York, Hellberg was stuck at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta.

Pekka Rinne’s been the Predators’ backbone during run to final

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne‘s face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

“As a player, I feel like I’ve had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity,” Rinne said. “So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have.”

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he’s probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne’s 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

“What he does every night, you can’t put into words,” Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said.

The 19-year-old franchise has reached its first Stanley Cup Final behind Rinne’s standout performances.

After Nashville ousted Anaheim in six games Monday night , Rinne now is even stingier on home ice with a 7-1 record, 1.54 GAA and .947 save percentage. He made 38 saves on a night where Nashville took only 18 shots.

“Anytime you need to close a series out, you know that as a goalie you got to be good and as a team you got to be good,” Rinne said.

The native of Kampele, Finland, has been better than good. He also has the skill to skate out to play the puck. With coach Peter Laviolette’s team clogging the neutral zone to slow opponents, Rinne is an extra (tall) layer of frustration waiting at the end of the ice for opponents who dump the puck in – even those high on the glass.

Anaheim defenseman Kevin Bieksa said Rinne will throw his body against the glass to knock the puck down so he can pass it out to a teammate essentially turning the goalie into another defender.

“You don’t see many goalies that aggressive,” Bieksa said. “And he’s gone out, he’s played a lot of pucks. And he’s good at it. One of their strengths, for sure.”

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle noted Rinne had eight plays on the puck alone in the first period of Game 5, a 3-1 Nashville win that put the Predators up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

“You can’t give him that type of opportunity,” Carlyle said.

Laviolette calls goaltender the most important position on the ice and he said Rinne’s confidence is a huge benefit for the team.

“And it gives you opportunities,” he said.

Rinne now has 34 playoff victories and is no longer at the top of a list no goalie likes. Washington’s Braden Holtby (29) is now the active goalie with the most postseason wins who hasn’t reached the final.

The only surprise was that it took Rinne this long. He’s a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, finishing second in 2011 and 2015. He led the league with 43 wins in 2011-12 and was MVP of the 2014 world championships.

Rinne bounced back from a hip injury that required arthroscopic surgery and later an E. coli infection that limited him to 24 games in the 2013-14 season. With him out of the lineup, Nashville just missed the postseason, leading general manager David Poile to replace coach Barry Trotz with Laviolette.

“I think David and the owners have done a really good job providing Peter more tools and maybe higher quality players and more talent,” Rinne said.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm says Rinne’s competitive streak comes out on the ice.

“He will put his foot down, and say, `Hey, this is my crease. This is where I am,”‘ Ekholm said. “So I wouldn’t say he’s as polite on the ice vs. our opponents. He’s always a competitor, and he always wants to win.”

The next chance for a win comes Monday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.