Florida Panthers v Pittsburgh Penguins

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PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 22: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his first period goal against the Florida Panthers at Consol Energy Center on December 22, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

No NHL players means more mistakes and goals at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Hockey is a game of mistakes and it’s on display in fine form at the Olympics.

It doesn’t look beautiful, of course, with players all outside the NHL turning the puck over for point-blank scoring chances or leaving opponents wide open in front. The talent level is lower, so the risk factors and the entertainment level are up. Goaltenders have to be on their toes for unexpected, game-saving stops even more than usual.

”It’s a short tournament: A few mistakes can decide your fate,” Finland goaltender Karri Ramo said Saturday. ”You try to create more than carry it out of the zone, so obviously teams are trying to keep the puck and create scoring chances, so those mistakes happen. You’re not going to win if you play safe.”

There’s not a whole lot of safe, low-risk play so far, and scoring has increased as a result. After each team played twice, games were averaging 5.1 goals, up from 4.7 in Sochi with NHL players on the rosters.

Four years ago, the bigger international ice allowed eventual Olympic champion Canada to hold on to the puck and simply wear out other teams. This time, it’s being used as a canvas for offensive masterpieces being authored by players such as Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen , the United States’ Ryan Donato and the Russians’ Kirill Kaprizov.

Players with the ability to create and finish are taking advantage of the mistakes being made all over the ice and turning them into goals.

”I think every team’s mentality is to come here and play for a win, not to play not to lose,” Ramo said. ”So you’re trying to push it, and you’d rather lose trying than lose by playing too safe. It’s great to see. I think it’s great for the fans, and it’s great for the players, too, to get to kind of play that kind of game once in a while.”

Germany coach Marco Sturm said every team is trying to minimize mistakes while also pressuring teams hard, so there are more opportunities to force turnovers.

”A lot of teams now, they make the pressure up ice and that’s why a lot of mistakes we’re making,” Sturm said. ”It seems like that’s the trend right now.”

Canada gave up a goal when veteran defenseman Chris Lee whiffed on a puck and another when former NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens’ attempt to rim the puck around the boards went right to a Czech Republic player. Canada lost in a shootout that happened in part because the Czechs capitalized on blunders.

”It’s just different (than the NHL),” former NHL winger Martin Erat said.

In the NHL, Switzerland goaltender Jonas Hiller could count on sound play in front of him. In a blowout win over South Korea, Hiller said, ”a lot of stuff happened by accident, and that’s kind of tough as a goalie to read what’s going to happen.” Carey Price and Jonathan Quick in Sochi showed the value of great goaltending, and the impact is even bigger now.

”You have a good goaltender, he gives you an opportunity to win every night,” South Korea coach Jim Paek said after Matt Dalton made 38 saves to keep a game against the Czech Republic close.

A lot of games have been close, too. Six of the first 12 games were decided by a goal, and two of them went to overtime, which is a wild, back-and-forth Broadway show of 3-on-3 on big ice.

This is the first Olympics with 3-on-3 OT on ice that is 15 feet wider than NHL rinks, so Ramo doesn’t believe teams really prepared as much for it as those in North America. Canada and the Czech Republic went through a full five-minute OT and traded scoring chances for much of that time.

”All of us are in Europe, so we’re used to it,” Canada forward Wojtek Wolski said. ”You’ve got to really be ready to be jumping.”

Canada coach Willie Desjardin said the OT format was ”hard to play” Sturm said ”it’s a lot of skating,” and turnovers in OT – those mistakes again – can lead to not one scoring chance but many.

”It certainly is a game of possession,” Ramo said. ”Small details can decide who’s going to get the odd-man rush, who’s going to get the breakaway. … Whichever team has the possession of the puck more is more likely to win the 3-on-3.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

NHL Playoff Race: The teams still in it and the teams that are out of it

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With only about one quarter of the 2017-18 NHL regular season remaining the league’s playoff race is starting to get a little clearer.

Let’s take a look at where things stand as of Saturday afternoon and who should be in, who should be out, and who is still very much on the bubble.

Eastern Conference

Who should be comfortable: Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Washington, Pittsburgh, probably Philadelphia

Who is on the bubble: New Jersey, New York Islanders, Columbus, Carolina.

Two of those four will get in.

Who is probably out of it: New York Rangers, Florida, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo.

Analysis: The Three playoff teams in the Atlantic Division are pretty much set in stone as Toronto, the third place team, has a 19-point lead over the fourth-place Florida Panthers. It is the most top-heavy division in the league. The only thing left to be decided is what order those top three teams finish in, especially when it comes to Tampa Bay and Boston. Entering play on Saturday the Lightning have a three-point lead over the Bruins, but Boston still has three games in hand.

Over in the Metro the top-three spots belong to Washington and Pittsburgh with Philadelphia right on their tails. All three teams should feel pretty good about their spot in the standings.

That means the other two spots in the Eastern Conference should come down to the remaining four bubble teams.

At the moment Columbus is on the outside of that playoff picture, sitting one point behind the New York Islanders but the Blue Jackets have played two fewer games and hold the edge based on points percentage. If both teams continue on their current pace the Blue Jackets would jump ahead into one of those spots.

Right now Columbus is on track for 89 points, which puts them just barely ahead of the Hurricanes and Islanders in the playoff race. The table below looks at each of the four bubble teams, how many games they have remaining, their current pace, and the records they would need the rest of the way to reach 90 points (to beat Columbus’ current pace) and 95 points (which would make any team a near lock for the playoffs).

Based on their current pace and projections, the Devils are in a pretty good position. The wild card with them, however, is the fact they are still without Cory Schneider and they have been fading a bit down the stretch here.

The Hurricanes and Islanders are still the two teams with the most work ahead of them.

If you are wondering why I made the Islanders and Hurricanes the cut off and did not include the New York Rangers, just keep in mind the Rangers would need to go 15-8-1 the rest of the way to reach 90 points. They would need to do that while potentially selling off players at the deadline and after having gone 8-14-1 in their past 24 games. It is always possible that Henrik Lundqvist could play out of his mind down the stretch, but that seems like it is asking a lot.

Western Conference

Who should be comfortable: Vegas, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas

Who is on the bubble:  San Jose, St. Louis, Calgary, Minnesota, Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles.

Four of those seven will get in.

Who is probably out of it: Chicago, Edmonton, Vancouver, Arizona

Analysis: The Western Conference is a bit more wide open because there are two races taking place at the same time and that is keeping a lot of teams in it. Not only do you have a wild card spot up for grabs, but perhaps two spots in the Pacific Division as well.

At this point Vegas seems to be running away with the regular season Pacific Division crown thanks to the 10-point lead (with one game in hand) it has over the San Jose Sharks.

The other two spots in that division are up for grabs with only five points separating the second place San Jose Sharks and fourth place Los Angeles Kings.

Based on each team’s current point projection the cut-off to make the playoffs in the Western Conference is significantly higher than it is in the Eastern Conference with the final playoff teams on pace for close to 97 points at the moment.

Let’s take a look at those races.

Even though when you look at the standings today and see that the Anaheim Ducks are just one point back of a playoff spot, and ahead of the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings in the standings, they still have the hardest road ahead of them given each team’s current pace and the fact everyone else still has games in hand on them. They would need to win 15 of their final 23 games to hit that 97-point pace to jump ahead of the Flames’ current pace in the Pacific Division.

Still, there is a razor thin margin of error for pretty much every team on that table.

Any of those four teams could grab the four spots that are still legitimately up for grabs.

The Blackhawks would need a 20-3-1 over their final 24 games to reach 97 points. So let us just say that them, and every team below them, is finished for this season.

Even though Dallas is tied with St. Louis with 72 points at the moment I did not include them on the bubble because they have played two fewer games. They have a top-10 points percentage in the NHL and are currently on pace for 101 points. It would take a pretty significant meltdown for them to fall out of the playoff picture.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kovalchuk scores twice, Russians outclass US 4-0 at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Ilya Kovalchuk scored two back-breaking goals as the Russians outplayed, outhit and outclassed the United States in a convincing 4-0 shutout Saturday night as each team wrapped up pool play at the Olympics.

With the loss, the United States is guaranteed to have to play in the qualification round Tuesday. U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski allowed four goals on 26 shots, including Kovalchuk’s goals less than 33 seconds apart at the end of the second period and start of the third.

Los Angeles Kings 2012 draft pick Nikolai Prokhorkin scored the Russians’ first two goals in a dominant performance.

As close as the shots on goal were, the U.S. rarely generated the quality scoring chances against Vasily Koshechkin the Russians did around Zapolski, who played all three preliminary-round games. Koshechkin stopped all 29 shots he faced for his first shutout of the tournament.

This night lacked the tense political subtext of the Cold War from their 1980 meeting and the pomp and circumstance of Russian president Vladimir Putin attending and the pressure on the home team in Sochi in 2014, but it had the same kind of in-arena atmosphere. U.S. and Russian fans filled Gangneung Hockey Centre and went back and forth with “U-S-A” and the “ROSS-I-YA” chants that made up the background noise at the Olympics four years ago.

There was at least one disagreement in the stands between those fans and plenty more on the ice. Pushing and shoving followed countless whistles, and at one point U.S. forward Jordan Greenway and Prokhorkin got tangled up and came as close to a fight as players can without dropping the gloves.

In a tournament full of mistakes, the U.S. made a couple to allow the Russians to take the lead 7:21 in. Alexander Barbanov had all the time in the world behind the net and dished the puck to KHL star Sergei Mozyakin, who found Prokhorkin free and clear in front for the deflection goal.

Ryan Donato had the Americans’ best chance of the first late in the period when he pinged a shot off the crossbar behind Koshechkin. The Russians hemmed the U.S. in its zone late in the period, and the fatigue took its toll as the game went on.

Left open on the rush as the U.S. was slow to backcheck, Prokhorkin scored his second goal 2:14 into the second, using a Jonathan Blum screen on Zapolski to make it 2-0. The U.S. spent the rest of the second period unable to convert on a delayed-penalty chance and a couple of power plays.

Things tilted even further when Sergei Andronov held the puck away from U.S. defender Bobby Sanguinetti and passed it to Kovalchuk, whose shot went under Zapolski’s arm and in with 0.2 seconds left in the second. As if that goal wasn’t deflating enough for the U.S., Slava Voynov sprung Kovalchuk for a semi-breakaway and the former Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils sniper beat Zapolski clean 32 seconds into the third for a 4-0 advantage.

NOTES: U.S. defenseman Will Borgen was a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game. Forward Jim Slater was also scratched. … David Leggio backed up Zapolski.

___

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Olympic streak over as Canada loses to Czechs in shootout

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Czech Republic rallied twice to hand the Canadian men’s hockey team its first Olympic loss in eight years Saturday, riding goaltender Pavel Francouz to a 3-2 win in a shootout.

Canada had won 11 consecutive games at the Olympics – the first 10 with NHL players – dating to a loss to the United States in pool play in Vancouver in 2010. Canada opened these games with a comfortable 5-1 win over the Swiss that confirmed its status as one of the favorites in the tournament.

Still, Russia, the United States and now Canada have all lost in the preliminary round.

”The first 10 minutes I thought they had a little bit of an advantage but from that point on I thought we played hard,” Canada coach Willie Desjardins said. ”Lots of parts of our game were good. Now we just move ahead. This one’s gone, we don’t worry about it at all. We just move ahead to the next one.”

Mason Raymond and Rene Bourque scored first-period goals for Canada, but Dominik Kubalik and Michal Jordan answered for the Czechs, who used a successful forecheck. The Czechs tied it up 35 seconds into the second period: Ben Scrivens, who had mishandled the puck seconds earlier, stopped a Michal Birner shot but Jordan banged in the rebound.

”We had one (goal against) with a couple chances to clear it and a sharp-angle shot that I probably want to have (back),” said Scrivens. ”Another one where they break in, throw it in the middle and hope for bounces, and they get one.”

Canada outshot the Czechs 33-20 through overtime, but Francouz stood tall – particularly in the extra session.

The three-on-three overtime on the big ice was frantic entertainment with quality scoring chances. Canada’s Derek Roy made some nifty rushes but couldn’t finish it off, while Mat Robinson broke up a two-on-one before losing the puck on a breakaway.

Wojtek Wolski scored for Canada in the shootout while Maxim Lapierre, Roy and Bourque were all stopped by Francouz and Maxim Noreau hit the post on his attempt. Petr Koukal and Jan Kouvar scored for the Czechs.

”A penalty shot is 50-50,” said Czech forward Roman Cervenka. ”We were more lucky today.”

The three group winners and the best second-ranked team advance directly to the quarterfinals. The remaining eight play, with the four winners advancing to the quarters.

Canada will take on South Korea, a fledgling program that features a half-dozen Canadians, on Saturday while the Czechs face Switzerland. A Czech win in regulation will give them top spot in the group and a direct route to Wednesday’s quarterfinals. The Canadians would have to hope to be the best second-place team to join them there or else play a qualification playoff game Tuesday.

”We played hard,” said Desjardins. ”The time you worry is when you don’t play hard. Like if you give everything you’ve got, then what happens happens and you move on to the next game and you look for some adjustments and you come back ready.”

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org