Five Thoughts: Change is coming for the Caps; Now you can blame Philly goaltending

2 Comments

After the first round of the playoffs was so wonderful and exciting, it just makes sense that the second round would turn into a complete bore. One sweep, two other series that could be sweeps, and Vancouver playing Nashville. Making things less boring, Caps failure, Flyers goaltending, and the Sharks playing like superstars.

1. The Capitals are the most perplexing team in the NHL and for all the wrong reasons. They’re teeming with talent year after year, they’ve got tremendous young players, they’re a regular season wrecking ball. Seeing them fail in different and unbelievable ways in the playoffs each season is becoming an unreal exercise in failure. Four years in a row now the Caps have bowed out in the first or second round thanks to being swept out by the Lightning last night. The last three years they’ve done so as the Southeast Division champions. The last two they’ve done so as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That all makes for one horrible track record and a climate of losing that’s bordering on toxic.

Changes will happen in one form or another in D.C. Bruce Boudreau could be out of work, George McPhee could overhaul the roster to rid themselves of the players that just aren’t working out. With the amount of talent they have in Washington, these playoff failures cannot continue. With a team this talented they should, at the very least, be making the Eastern Conference final consistently. Instead they’re checking out early while lower seeded teams make hay on them. Things can’t stay that way.

2. We’ve been pretty good about not throwing all the blame on Flyers goaltending in their series against Boston. After all, hockey’s a team game and sometimes the guys playing in front of the goalie make life miserable on them through poor play. Last night’s 5-1 loss to Boston to go down 3-0 in the series though for Brian Boucher and Philadelphia? That one’s on him. Two goals allowed in the first 1:03 of the game on shots that should’ve been stopped. Two more bad goals allowed later on and getting pulled from the game being down 4-0 instills zero confidence in anyone.

Yes, Philly’s had problems with nagging injuries but the way they’re playing points to no one trusting anyone else to do the right thing and what you get is a gigantic circus of failure. While the Flyers offense was good enough against Buffalo to make up for mistakes made defensively or in goal, they just don’t have that ability right now against a much more difficult Bruins team. If you’re thinking Boston will be revisited by the ghosts of last year’s huge collapse against Philly, think again. This one seems destined for a sweep.

3. If you’re a Red Wings fan and looking for positive spin out of going down 3-0 in the series against San Jose, you can say your team is only losing one-goal games and that’s a slim enough margin for error where any game could’ve been turned in their favor. Sure, that works but it’s not quite so true. Detroit has played the Sharks tough but the Sharks are playing better. They’ve been able to force the Wings into making mistakes and the Sharks power play has taken advantage of a poor Wings kill.

Game 3 was Detroit’s best effort of the series and while Jimmy Howard thinks they should’ve won they didn’t. The Sharks are outworking Detroit and while this series seemed destined to be a classic, it’s setting up to be another second round sweep. Don’t expect Detroit to bow out quietly the way Washington did in their Game 4.

4. We touted Steve Downie’s abilities last week in his efforts to help the Lightning win games by racking up points but what Sean Bergenheim is doing for Tampa Bay is stunning. Bergenheim has seven goals in the postseason, tying him with James van Riemsdyk and Daniel Briere for the top spot in the playoffs for goals. Everyone’s been busy rightfully touting the Lightning’s defensive abilities in shutting down both the Penguins and Capitals, but their offense has been stunning.

While Bergenheim and Downie are getting the “unknown hero” treatment, their big guns of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are making it look like their 2004 run to the Stanley Cup all over again. St. Louis leads the playoffs in points with 13 while Lecavalier and Downie are right behind him with 12 points. Getting production like that from your best players and getting huge performances from guys like Bergenheim make Tampa Bay a legitimate threat to beat anyone in the playoffs the rest of the way.

5. Should Vancouver beat Nashville in Game 4, the possibility that we could see all the second round series done by Saturday night is very possible. With the Sharks and Bruins on the verge of pulling sweeps, the Lightning already sweeping out the Caps, Vancouver could make it so the start of the conference finals gets here a lot sooner than expected. We’re thinking the Predators will have a lot to say about that. Unless Vancouver totally figured out how to beat Nashville, we don’t envision the Preds laying down easily or quietly for them.

U.S. rides Zapolski, college kids to Olympic quarterfinals

Getty Images
Leave a comment

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Tony Granato knew going into the Olympics that Ryan Zapolski would be his goaltender and that the college kids on the Team USA roster would be counted on to supply offense.

It’s worked just like Granato and the late general manager Jim Johannson had hoped, and just in time: Zapolski stopped 21 shots in his best game of the tournament and NCAA players Ryan Donato and Troy Terry dominated offensively in a 5-1 win against Slovakia that put the United States into Wednesday’s quarterfinals against the Czech Republic (Tues., 10:10 p.m. ET, CNBC).

”Jimmy, like we said since Day One, this is his plan,” Granato said Tuesday’s win. ”It’s been a really nice mix.”

Zapolski and Donato both took hits to the head against Slovakia, and both said they were fine afterward.

It looked worrisome at the time.

In a frightening play, Ladislav Nagy crashed into Zapolski’s head and the goaltender was down on the ice for several minutes. Needing to be on top of his game in the Americans’ first elimination game, Zapolski was, even after jamming his neck.

”My hands and feet went numb a little bit, so it just kind of pinched my nerve, I guess,” Zapolski said. ”I think I just needed time for the feeling to come back. It took a little bit. It was a little bit of a scary thing for me kind of losing feeling in your body for a little bit, but it went away pretty quickly.”

Donato took a shoulder to the jaw from 6-foot-4 Slovakia defenseman Michal Cajovsky, who was ejected, and didn’t miss a shift despite a bloody nose he thought might be broken. On the next play, he set the screen on James Wisniewski’s 5-on-3 power-play goal in a game that helped the U.S. get its offensive groove back.

”He’s a really tough kid, and you see how much just of a natural goal-scorer he is,” Terry said of Donato. ”He’s fun to play with, and if I get the puck to him I know it’s got a pretty good chance of going in.”

Donato and Terry have had fun and made some magic playing on a line with former NHL forward Mark Arcobello, who Granato joked was the happiest person at the Olympics because of his skilled linemates. Arcobello, who scored his first Olympic goal against Slovakia, knew at the first practice how good Donato and Terry would be.

”You could just see the talent they’ve got,” Arcobello said. ”They look like pros. They don’t look like college players. They’re poised and they do the right things. They’re smart players. So I knew right away they were going to be pretty good.”

Johannson and Granato wanted to bring three to seven college players and hoped they’d be this good. But their first conversation about a player was about Zapolski, a 31-year-old journeyman with no North American professional experience above the ECHL.

Zapolski is among the best goaltenders in the Kontinental Hockey League but conceded ”maybe things weren’t going the way I had hoped the first few games” when he allowed a few soft goals. There were none of those against Slovakia.

”In a tournament like this, you only win if you have a good goalie,” Wisniewski said. ”You’re going to have to have a good power play and a good penalty kill, but your best penalty killer is going to be your goalie. With his numbers he’s had in the KHL, he’s come in ready to play every game, which has been huge for us.”

It’s huge for the U.S. to get its power play and offense going. And to no one’s surprise, Harvard’s Donato, University of Denver’s Terry and Boston University’s Jordan Greenway are at the forefront.

”You see it more and more in the NHL with these young kids coming in and making a huge impact,” Wisniewski said. ”They come in guns a blazing, they get every opportunity and they want you to make plays. The game has changed and you can see with the guys on our team.”

The U.S. came into the game scoring only four goals in three games. Scoring five against the team Granato called perhaps the best defensive team in the tournament has the Americans feeling good going into the quarterfinals.

”I think people saw tonight we have a very fast team and a team that can play good hockey,” Terry said. ”So we have a lot of belief in our team and we’re excited to keep going.”

Despite a 4-0 loss to the Russians to wrap up group play, Granato and his players believe they’ve gotten better each game and see a benefit in playing the extra qualification-round game to keep improving. The Czech Republic is up next for the U.S.

”There’s some different weapons that we’ll have to be aware of,” Granato said. ”I think what we learned from our team is it doesn’t matter what the other team does. We have to attack, we have to get in on the forecheck, we have to use our offensive players that we do have, the skillset that we do have.”

Elsewhere in the qualification round:

– Norway eliminated Slovenia 2-1 in overtime for its first Olympic win since 1994. Norway will face the Russians on Wednesday in its first Olympic quarterfinal appearance, while Slovenia played without Ziga Jeglic, who was suspended for doping.

– Finland eliminated South Korea with a 5-2 win, advancing to play Canada on Wednesday night.

– Germany eliminated Switzerland 2-1 in overtime, advancing to play top-seeded Sweden on Wednesday night.

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

More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org

Puck, player tracking being tested at Olympics

Getty Images
1 Comment

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Finland players looked at the numbers and laughed.

They couldn’t believe captain Lasse Kukkonen only had five sprints in a game and Petri Kontiola had a whopping 46.

Even better: They don’t even know what qualifies as a sprint.

“We were looking at the stats and average speeds and making fun of some guys,” forward Oskar Osala said. “How can you have 46 sprints in a game? It sounds like a ridiculous amount of sprints.”

At these Olympics, data on speed, acceleration, stopping, distance traveled, shift lengths and ice time is available to teams in what could be the next step for puck and player tracking across hockey, including the NHL. Referees even have whistles digitally connected to the clock so it stops immediately without the need for a timekeeper’s quick reaction that will always be a step slow.

Yeah, this feels like hockey’s future. The NHL has worked with technology companies and invested significant money to develop a system it can use. The Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments are a valuable testing field that could speed up the process of getting it ready for use like it is in the NBA, Major League Baseball, Formula One and other sports.

“We’re still searching for the right thing, but technology is developing so fast,” International Ice Hockey Federation general secretary Horst Lichtner said. “We are still all looking for the right solution. Maybe it’s two years. It’ll be fast.”

Lichtner and Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing, which is doing the tracking in hockey and ski jumping thanks to a deal with the International Olympic Committee, said their organizations have been in contact with the NHL about the technology.

The system includes microchips in the back of jerseys that can be tracked and cameras high above the ice at the Gangneung and Kwandong hockey arenas track the movement of the puck.

It’s not quite Fox’s famous “glow puck” from the 1990s, but it’s similar to the testing the NHL did at 2015 All-Star weekend and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Omega gave the same combination of technology a run-through at the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics in Norway, and it was successful enough to try it with pros.

At the Olympics, a player’s speed is sometimes flashed up on arena video boards and all the data is sent to teams. Unlike the NHL, iPads and other electronic devices aren’t allowed on benches in international play, but if and when they are, the data could be available in real time for coaches and players to evaluate.

“We’re able to measure the data, process it and distribute in less than 100 milliseconds,” Zobrist said. “It might be a great tool for them to help their coaching.”

Player performance tracking is a touchy subject off the ice. Players have expressed concern that data on speed, distance traveled, shot velocity and other things could be used against them in coaching decisions and contract negotiations.

“It’s just all cons,” said former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski, who’s playing for the United States. “There’s nothing pros for a player for that at all. It’s not like you’re going to make more money, get a longer-term deal because you travel more distance or you don’t travel. All this is going to do is hurt you. Being a (NHL Players’ Association) rep for eight, nine years, I really have a hard time believing that the PA’s going to even let that go through. It’s all negative.”

Osala enjoys real-time data he gets as a golf fan and considers it a useful tool for athletes.

“I kind of understand how the pros approach their game and I think it’s pretty cool how you can develop your game after you made a deep analysis of your performance in a long span,” said Osala, who played three NHL games with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. “For me as a fan, it makes the game so much more interesting. Absolutely as a fan I would love to have the data in hockey.”

It would be fascinating to see how fast Connor McDavid skates, how quickly Vladimir Tarasenko releases the puck or how hard Zdeno Chara shoots from the point on the power play. But there are questions about how practical that information is. Lichtner called Formula One’s program the “ultimate data experience” because fans know everything, including the G-force on a driver, but said he doesn’t think that’s important in hockey.

“I don’t need to know the G-force of the contact between (Alex Ovechkin) and the other guy if he’s strong, but maybe some people would like it,” Lichtner said. “I can see a coach having a hundred pages more of information. He might love it, but what is the benefit for the fan?

“I’m asking my people always, ‘Why do we do it and what’s in it for promoting hockey better?’ Make it more complicated? It’s already fast and complicated enough. Can you explain the game better? Yes? Then we have a big benefit.”

During the U.S. game against Slovenia, Brian O’Neill’s maximum speed was posted on a scoreboard, visual evidence that this is a team that can fly. As much as Wisniewski doesn’t see any pluses, teammate Bobby Sanguinetti wondered if it the data can help players understand themselves better.

“It might even help with rest for us,” Sanguinetti said. “If you see a guy’s logging a lot of minutes and he’s traveling a lot of distance, I guess, from the chip, maybe that has some impact.”

Finland players joked around about Kukkonen’s five sprints, but Osala said he felt the veteran defenseman was one of the best on the ice.

Therein lies a potential problem.

“I think you need to have somebody looking at the data and somebody looking at the actual game,” Osala said. “You can’t just look at the numbers. There has to be a balance between them.”

That’s the common refrain among players and coaches about advanced stats right now, including Corsi and Fenwick, which measure shot attempts to convey some measure of possession. Once player and puck tracking is perfected and implemented, there could be specific stats on how much time the play was in each zone, similar to time of possession in football.

It seems like just a matter of time until the NHL will track and disperse that information, and Lichtner said the NHL and IIHF are on good terms and will share ideas. He said he doesn’t believe this system, which the IIHF only found out about three weeks before the Olympics and worked with Omega and jersey-maker Nike to implement, is the one that will ultimately be in place.

“The future is a mix of chip data and cameras,” Lichtner said. “But we have to try it.”

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Is South Korea now a hockey nation? Challenge is next step

Getty Images
Leave a comment

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Korean women’s hockey team, thrown together in a historic combination of players from both North and South, will forever be a milestone that had ramifications beyond the Olympics.

Now only South Korea can decide if hockey truly takes root and the nation becomes a regular on the international stage – the women, sure, but also the South Korean men’s team, which also made a somewhat quieter Olympic debut.

Men’s assistant coach Richard Park believes hockey is poised for growth in South Korea and around Asia, which will host the next Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

”I don’t know if you’re at any particular stage where you can put a term on it like ‘the sleeping giant,”’ Park said. ”There’s obviously an opportunity for growth. Hopefully the Olympics, we’ll be able to use it as a springboard, or some sort of platform, and really accelerate the growth of the sport here.”

South Korea built its men’s and women’s teams by tapping players with ties to the country and the Justice Ministry was asked to fast-track the naturalization of imported players. Two hockey arenas and two practice rinks also were built to handle all the games and practices in Gangneung.

Putting the men’s team together took four exhaustive years of work by Park and head coach Jim Paek among many, a steep climb in a nation that in 2014 had little more than 100 registered male hockey players.

Building from here will mean more money and other resources and it also means offering the sport at the youth level and establishing strong junior leagues. Having a place to play for a country’s top players also is a priority.

Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said China is working hard with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League and two other teams playing in Russia. Kunlun Red Star, featuring Finnish goalie Noora Raty, is an expansion team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

”To be sustainable we need a strong league, a domestic league,” Fasel said. ”We are actually working in China with that. We will also try to get the Koreans on the same path.”

Lee Hee-beom, president of the Pyeongchang Olympic organizing committee, noted South Korea has a junior women’s hockey team.

”When they grow up, this will be much stronger than this lady ice hockey team,” said Lee, who added that there are discussions about building a professional women’s team after the Olympics.

Defenseman Lee Don Ku, who plays on an Asian league team in South Korea, said he sees some interest at the junior level but there are no official leagues.

”But I hope that can change in the future,” Lee said.

Only time will tell if fans who turned out to cheer, chant and sing in support of the Korean hockey teams keep watching.

Playing better hockey certainly can help drive interest.

The men’s team lost all four games at the Olympics by a combined score of 19-3, with a 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in the opener proving to be their closest game.

The women lost all five games, but proved to be quick learners. They were routed 8-0 in the opener by Switzerland and beaten by the same score in their second game. After that, though, came a rugged 4-1 loss to Japan that saw the team’s first goal (Randi Heesoo Griffin got the honor) and then a taut 2-0 loss to the Swiss. The 6-1 loss to Sweden in the final game seemed less important than the cheering fans who stayed to watch the players raise their sticks in farewell.

Watching the world’s best up close also helped.

”We saw what we should learn from them and we’ve actually learned some,” said Eom Suyeon, just 17. ”So I think these will be helpful.”

Her coach, Sarah Murray, has already agreed to stay on a couple more years to help grow the sport, and she said there are plans to begin an under-18 program to develop talent.

A combined women’s team also may resurface in 2022 with both Fasel and Lee supporting the idea.

”I think that would be good to do it in 2022, to go to the Beijing Olympics, to keep the North and South Korean team,” Fasel said. ”It is a message of peace and we hope to continue that. We will try.”

If the survival and thriving of hockey comes down to work ethic, Park said he believes the game will thrive.

”They have this uncanny ability to not be outworked, and that’s something that’s reflected in our team,” Park said. ”You go outside the ice rink and you see it in the people of Korea. They work extremely hard and they’re very passionate in what they do. So you bring those qualities to an ice rink, there’s no reason not to be able to have some success.”

NOTES: In Tuesday’s other game, Evelina Raselli’s goal just 3:19 into the game led Switzerland past Japan 1-0 for fifth place at the tournament. Florence Schelling made 20 saves for the Swiss, who went 4-2 at the Olympics. Japan went 2-3.

Associated Press writers Stephen Whyno and Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this story.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Seattle season ticket drive to begin on March 1

Getty
6 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Seattle is getting ready to take the next step in the process to landing an NHL team.

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced on Tuesday that a season ticket drive will begin on March 1 at 10 a.m. PT.

Deposits will cost $500.

They can be purchased through nhlseattle.com.

The Oak View Group, which hopes to land the NHL team and is led by billionaire David Bonderman and filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer, submitted the expansion application with the National Hockey League exactly one week ago.

How well this season ticket drive goes will be a key factor in whether or not Seattle is awarded the NHL’s 32nd team at some point in the future.

When Vegas began its season ticket drive in February, 2015, it set a goal of 10,000 deposits and ended up selling all 16,000 deposits that were available within a year.

The Golden Knights began play this season and currently have one of the best records in the NHL.

The new Seattle team hopes to begin play in 2020.

————

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.