Aaron Rome suspended four games for his hit on Nathan Horton

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While some debated whether or not Aaron Rome would be suspended for his wicked hit on Nathan Horton in the first period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, there was no debate amongst the NHL officials. Rome was suspended for four games for his hit meaning he’ll sit out the rest of the finals. With the Bruins ruling Nathan Horton out of the playoffs with a severe concussion, in this case, the punishment fits the crime.

Rome’s suspension is the harshest one delivered in the history of the Stanley Cup finals as previous suspensions have all been of the one game variety. The last time a player was suspended in the Stanley Cup finals came in 2007 when Anaheim’s Chris Pronger received a one game ban for elbowing Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in the head.

Senior VP of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy had this to say about the hit:

“Two factors were considered in reaching this decision,” said NHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy. “The hit by Rome was clearly beyond what is acceptable in terms of how late it was delivered after Horton had released the puck and it caused a significant injury.”

With Vancouver being without Aaron Rome and with a lingering injury to Dan Hamhuis, they’re going to have to fill ranks from within falling back to either Keith Ballard or Chris Tanev to take his spot on the blue line the rest of the way out. While Rome isn’t a top flight defender, he earned his spot in the lineup and earned coach Alain Vigneault’s trust. With him having to fall back on Ballard or Tanev he’s either putting his faith into a player who lost his trust and spot in the lineup in Ballard or a rookie in Tanev.

There won’t be anyone feeling too bad for Vancouver in this instance as Rome’s importance to Vancouver is dwarfed by how important Nathan Horton is for Boston. The trade off isn’t fair by any means but the punishment given to Rome fits the situation and how the league needed to take a tougher stand on questionable and dirty hits delivered to players’ heads. If this is the kind of change that could be on the way in the future, perhaps the game will be a bit safer.

Aaron Rome made a statement about the hit issued through the team.

“I want to express my concern for Nathan’s well being and wish him a quick and full recovery. I try to play this game honestly and with integrity. As someone who has experienced this type of injury I am well aware of its serious nature and have no desire for another player to experience it. I will not take away my teammates’ focus on the task at hand and intend to speak at an appropriate time in future.”

Rome doesn’t have a history at all with dirty hits delivered and he too was knocked out of action for a short while in the playoffs this year. During the Western Conference finals against San Jose he was taken out thanks to a questionable hit from Sharks forward Jamie McGinn. McGinn was not suspended for the hit.

This won’t be the last time we’ll have an instance like this, but considering how severe the punishment was to Rome in this instance without any prior record perhaps the league is finally getting serious.

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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.

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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

The Buzzer: Hot Islanders goalies, Jets take off

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Players of the Night

  • Much like Jaroslav Halak with his 50-save shutout last night, Thomas Greiss stole the show – and a shutout – for the New York Islanders, stopping all 45 of the Hurricanes’ shots on Friday. He probably deserves the top spot; you can read about his performance here.
  • Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele helped the Jets dominate the Avalanche 6-1. Wheeler collected two goals and one assist, while Scheifele generated three assists. Since returning from an injury, Scheifele is on a three-game point streak, collecting two goals and five helpers. Wheeler continued to produce without Scheifele, but like peanut butter and chocolate, they’re even better together.

Note: if you go after them, you may have to answer to Dustin Byfuglien. That’d probably bad news for you.

Highlights of the Night

This was Patrik Laine‘s 16th power-play goal of 2017-18. Looks like his office covers a lot of ground/ice:

Sean Couturier continues to be a revelation as a top-line center for the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring the overtime-winner against the Blue Jackets:

Columbus carried a substantial shot advantage over Philly, but Sergei Bobrovsky made some great stops:

Factoids

Again, the Islanders’ shutouts are especially impressive because the defense has not been impressive.

Quite a start to Patrik Laine’s career.

Select company for John Klingberg.

Jay Bouwmeester: 1,100 games, countless surprised facial expressions.

Scores

Flyers 2, Blue Jackets 1 (OT)
Islanders 3, Hurricanes 0
Jets 6, Avalanche 1
Stars 2, Blues 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.