Blackhawks ‘admire the way Pittsburgh’s playing’

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The Chicago Blackhawks know all about going on a long streak that can captivate hockey fans from all different corners of the NHL.

After all, they did go 24 straight games to begin the 2013 season without a loss in regulation time.

In the Eastern Conference, it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins that are on quite a roll right now.

They’re on a 14-game winning streak, and are so far perfect in the month of March, with a Saturday afternoon game against the New York Islanders.

After a trio of trades this week that hit a peak with the addition of Jarome Iginla, have to be considered the favorites to take the Eastern Conference.

“It is a little different, it’s almost like there’s two leagues now,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We don’t see them until the Stanley Cup Final, hopefully. [But] I like to watch the Eastern Conference on TV more than I like to watch the West. It seems like everyone in the West, you play them every night, you’re more familiar with them. It’s more fun to see [the East].

“I like watching the Flyers and the Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs I grew up watching. You have to admire the way Pittsburgh’s playing, and what they’re doing to their lineup, trying to build up for a long playoff run.”

 

Russia aims for Olympic hockey gold despite turmoil

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia can’t win Olympic hockey gold in Pyeongchang, but the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” will have a great shot at the title.

OAR is the moniker imposed by the International Olympic Committee as part of Russia’s punishment across all sports for doping at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

That’s likely to mean neutral-colored jerseys – though Team Russia executives are battling to keep the traditional red – but still a roster boasting some of the best players outside the NHL.

Asked if the Russians consider themselves gold medal favorites in South Korea, captain Ilya Kovalchuk said: ”We always are.”

The OAR name is no big deal for Kovalchuk. ”Everyone knows where we’re from. It doesn’t matter. The flag is in our heart.”

Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are among the stars available to Russia ahead of the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players.

The commercial power of the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League – fueled by Russia’s state-run oil and gas companies – has allowed it to compete financially with NHL teams for Russian talent.

Along with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, the Russian team has forward Vadim Shipachyov, who walked out on the Las Vegas Golden Knights last month, and two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Slava Voynov, who is banned from the NHL indefinitely after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.

Russia showed its potential Thursday with a 3-1 win over Sweden – a key Olympic rival – on two goals from Sergei Kalinin in a Moscow exhibition tournament game.

Russia recorded 34 shots against 22 for Sweden in front of a passionate home crowd, many in red shirts hailing the team as ”Red Machine Reloaded” in honor of the legendary Soviet rosters. Datsyuk sat out the tournament for fitness reasons.

”We just tried to play simple and hard,” defenseman Sergei Andronov said. ”We’re trying to play every game for a victory.”

The Russians haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since 1992, when an almost entirely Russian lineup of players from the recently collapsed Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team.

Under the Team Russia name, its best result is silver in 1998. The last Olympics on home ice in Sochi were a disappointment, as Finland beat Russia 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

The Sochi Games have come back to haunt Russia, with 31 athletes across six sports banned for doping and other sanctions from the IOC.

There’s no allegation of doping by the men’s hockey team, though six women’s team players were suspended.

The key Russian whistleblower, former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, has stated in an affidavit that men’s hockey players were not included in a doping program as they would have been harder to keep track of across multiple clubs, and could have given the game away if they failed tests outside Russia.

Not everything has been smoothed out just yet though for Russia ahead of Pyeongchang.

The KHL leadership has yet to confirm it will release players, though any obstruction by the Russia-based league would face fierce opposition from the players and the Russian Hockey Federation leadership, which includes wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin.

Months of uncertainty over whether Russia would be allowed to compete at all in Pyeongchang haven’t worn team morale down, coach Oleg Znarok insists.

”We’re feeling great and it’s always been great,” he said Wednesday. ”We’ve been working and getting ready. We had no doubts.”

U.S. women’s hockey team to play NWHL team in Olympic tune-up

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NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. women’s national team will play two exhibitions against some familiar faces from the National Women’s Hockey League next month in a final tune-up for the Olympics.

The games are set for Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida, where the national team has been training.

Eleven players currently on the U.S. roster competed in the NWHL during the 2016-17 season, USA Hockey said Thursday. The pro league enters its third season with teams in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Stamford, Connecticut.

”(The NWHL) continues to play at an elite level and does a great job of exposing the game in different markets,” USA Hockey women’s director Reagan Carey said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer helped the Buffalo Beauts win the NWHL championship last March.

”The NWHL is honored to be welcomed by USA Hockey and to participate in this pair of important exhibition games,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. ”Our players, coaches and staff are excited to have this opportunity.”

U.S. national team captain Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Alex Carpenter and Amanda Pelkey played for the Boston Pride.

Amanda Kessel (New York Riveters) and Haley Skarupa (Connecticut Whale) also played in the pro league.

Many of the players on both rosters are either ex-teammates or completed against each other in college and the pros.

”The NWHL will do its best to give the players some strong competition so they’re ready to bring home the gold in February,” Rylan said.

The U.S. team won gold at the first women’s hockey event, at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Since then, the team has earned three silvers and a bronze in losses to Canada.

”We want to make sure the ’98 team has some company with the gold medal,” Carey said.

The Americans and Canadians will finish their six-game exhibition series with two games this weekend. The U.S. has a 1-3 record so far, but beat its rivals twice at The Four Nations Cup and won the title.

The teams have drawn good crowds in Canada and U.S. stops in Boston and St. Paul, Minnesota. They drew 9,000 flag-waving fans on Dec. 3 in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

”It’s been great to see so many young girls and hockey teams,” Carey said. ”You can really see the growing landscape for young girls.”

The U.S. plays Canada on Friday night in San Jose, California. The Americans wrap up the series on Sunday night at Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, in a game televised on NHL Network.

Oilers need healthy Talbot to give them a spark during upcoming crucial stretch

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At the start of the season, the Edmonton Oilers were one of the favorites to win or at least make it to the Stanley Cup Final. But through 32 games, their season has looked more like a train-wreck than a victory parade in-waiting.

Only the Arizona Coyotes are below the Oilers in the Western Conference standings right now, which is still kind of surprising.

One of the biggest reasons they’ve struggled in the first third of the season is because of goalie Cam Talbot. First, he wasn’t very good at the start of the season. Talbot wasn’t providing his team with the solid goaltending he had given them last year.

Second, just as he was rounding into form, he suffered a upper-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since the end of November.

Prior to getting hurt, the 30-year-old had won three games in a row while allowing two goals in each of those outings. During his absence, Laurent Brossoit went 3-4-0. The Oilers backup netminder gave up three goals or more in four of those seven games.

On Friday, the Oilers (finally) got some positive news, as they activated their starting netminder from the injured list. According to head coach Todd McLellan, he’ll be between the pipes for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild. Now, they just have to hope that he can pick up where he left off before landing on IR.

Earlier this season, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was in a similar situation to Talbot’s. Price was awful out of the gate and the Canadiens were struggling. Nothing was going right for them. But after missing roughly three weeks with an injury, Price returned in tip-top shape. Even though Montreal is still outside of a playoff spot right now, they play of their goaltender has allowed them to get back into the race.

McLellan has to hope that Talbot’s “break” allowed him to get better and re-focus on the task at hand. Connor McDavid is still the face of the franchise, but he clearly can’t get the job done by himself.

Edmonton is about to jump into a crucial stretch of their season. After tomorrow’s game in Minnesota, they’ll play seven of their next eight games on home ice, where they have an ugly 5-10-0 record. If they want to get back in the playoff hunt, they’ll need to start racking up the wins at Rogers Place.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Maple Leafs help SickKids Foundation make giant cookie for Santa (Video)

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It’s always special to see NHL teams give back to their communities in original ways. The Toronto Maple Leafs found a pretty unique way to help out the SickKids Foundation. It even involved putting on a hairnet.

The Leafs made their annual visit to the SickKids Foundation earlier this month and some of them took part in a special tradition that involves making a giant cookie for Santa “no-trade” Claus (sorry).

Mike Babock, Wendel Clark and a few of the current members of the team worked hard to make sure that the finished product was all quality.

Babcock barking out orders in the kitchen is hilarious. Him emphasizing “cream your sugar” is pretty good, too.

“I come here on a regular basis and the people here are stars,” Babcock said, per the Toronto Star. “If you think of your children getting diagnosed with something, let’s say cancer, it’s an awful thing and you want to go to the best place, with the best doctors, so you can feel the best. To me that’s what this place is all about.

“Sometimes when things are going really good in your life you need to take a step back, take a deep breath to understand how lucky you are.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.