The Chip ‘n’ Chase: Olympic odds, Russia’s defense, King Henrik’s new deal, Fire Cappy? and more

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This is a new thing we’re trying. Every Wednesday, we’ll publish a little back-and-forth we have via email. We’re calling it the Chip ‘n’ Chase. Yes, it’s a terrible name. Enjoy.

Jason Brough: Hey buddy, so I just got Bovada’s latest odds to win Olympic gold. Here’s how they look:

Canada 2/1
Russia 9/4
Sweden 5/1
USA 11/2
Czech Republic 10/1
Finland 12/1
Switzerland 25/1
Slovakia 33/1
Norway 200/1
Latvia 400/1
Austria 900/1
Slovenia 900/1

No huge surprises, though it’s interesting that Russia was the favorite in July, and now Canada is. Personally I’d drop Russia even further down, below Sweden and USA. I know Russia’s got a ridiculously talented group of forwards, but I just can’t get past the candidates on defense, of whom a player by the name of Eugene Ryasensky is apparently one. I suppose it’s possible they could gain an advantage playing at home in Sochi. On the other hand, I could just as easily see them choking under the pressure, as a very unhappy, and possibly shirtless, Vladimir Putin watches on.

Mike Halford: Yeah, that defense. And it’s not like they’ll be able to hide their bottom guys. The Olympics is a bit different than the NHL. “Canada’s fourth line hops over the boards for a rare shift…let’s see what Matt Duchene, Patrick Marleau and Corey Perry can do.” The thing with Russia is you can get caught up playing fantasy hockey with its forwards and, in turn, overlook its glaring roster flaws. Like, yes, Russia could ice a top line of Malkin-Datsyuk-Ovechkin…which it would need, because Anton Volchenkov is anchoring (quite literally) the D. That’s why I really like the Swedes’ chances. They have three of the NHL’s top-10 defenseman scorers — Karlsson, Ekman-Larsson and Kronwall — plus the likes of Brodin, Edler, Hedman, Hjalmarsson, Oduya and Ericsson. I’d argue only Canada has superior blue-line depth, and even then it’s close. But enough about the favorites. One country always seems to surprise at the Olympics — Slovakia in ’10, Belarus in ’02, and I seem to remember the United States playing well in ’80 — so, who’s your dark-horse pick? Are we all overlooking Slovenia, Jason? ARE WE?

JB: I think a lot of people would answer Switzlerland to this question, so I won’t. No disrespect to the Swiss, who won silver at the 2013 Worlds and nearly beat Canada in 2010. They’re like the international version of the 2003 Minnesota Wild. I just don’t want to pick the same dark horse everyone else is picking. For that reason, I think I’ll go with Austria. Not to win a medal, but I could see them pulling an upset and reaching the quarterfinals. Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner are pretty talented players, and I assume their goalies have all the necessary equipment — glove, blocker, chest protector, etc. Oh, and let’s not forget that Austria won gold at the 1927 European championships. So this is a team with a history of success at big tournaments.

source: APMH: How they beat Belgium that year, I’ll never know. I see you mentioned Grabner and Vanek, so congrats are in order — you wrote about the Islanders without questioning Jack Capuano’s job security. Why do you hate Jack Capuano so much, Jason? Is it his hair? His wardrobe? His charming Rhode Island accent? I just don’t get why you’re constantly writing about his potential firing. Is it because New York has lost seven straight and sits last in the Metropolitan Division, seven points back of a playoff spot? Oh, wait, I get it now. I guess I just feel bad for Capuano, who lest we forget isn’t far removed from helping the Isles snap a five-season playoff drought, for which he finished fifth in the Jack Adams voting. I fail to see how this year’s flawed team — terrible goaltending, no Streit/Visnovsky, etc. — lands at his feet, but I guess that’s the business. Garth Snow might have immense loyalty to Cappy but, as the old saying goes, you can’t fire the players, you can only trade them to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek.

JB: You make it sound like I’ve been pushing for his firing. Not true. I feel for the guy, too. I’m simply wondering where Snow’s breaking point exists. It took a 10-game winless streak for Scott Gordon to get canned in 2010, and the Isles could easily get to that point with their upcoming road trip through St. Louis, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, and Phoenix. I agree, the team has flaws — significant ones, and those fall on management and ownership — but that doesn’t mean Capuano should escape responsibility. Otherwise, why not just prop up a mannequin, or one of those water-drinking toy birds, behind the bench and call it coach? Actually, I wonder if the Isles might consider that. If there’s one NHL team that loves to save a buck, it’s the Isles. And I bet the water-drinking bird would work cheap, unless it has a really good agent. Anyway, maybe it’ll be good for the Isles to get out on the road, even if it’s to play five of the top teams in the league. At least there won’t be any “Fire Cappy” or “Snow Must Go” chants for a little while.

MH: Funny you mention the financial limitations the Islanders face, because they were only accentuated by their hated rivals, the Rangers, who just dropped nearly $60 million to retain Henrik Lundqvist. That’s a lot of scratch, but I guess when you’re negotiating with the NHL’s most consistent goalie over the last eight years, you gotta pay that man his money. The goalie market is blowing my mind a little bit right now. Lundqvist, Rask, Rinne, Quick and Luongo are all on mega-deals, to the point where the contracts for Price, Smith and Howard — which are all six years and worth at least $31 million — seem conservative. At this point, I don’t know whether a guy like Ryan Miller is in a good position or a bad one. He could capitalize on the “good goalies get paid” trend, but where? So many teams have locked into their guys, it’s not like he’s going to have his choice of places to play. Same goes for other pending UFA goalies like Jonas Hiller, Jaroslav Halak and Tim Thomas.

source: Getty ImagesJB: The Rangers were always going to pay Lundqvist. He’s arguably the best goalie in the world, and you don’t let a player like that walk away. Especially if you’re one of the league’s financial powerhouses. And especially when he’s so handsome. Wait, what? But you’re right, the goalie market is fascinating. For GMs, it’s a question of paying for certainty with a proven veteran, or rolling the dice on a youngster or reclamation project. Personally I’d be wary of giving a goalie a lengthy contract. Look at what happened in Vancouver with Roberto Luongo. Look at Pekka Rinne’s health issues. Not to mention, so much of goaltending is mental, and a goalie’s mind can be a fragile thing. They’re a bit like golfers and NFL kickers in that way — one day they look amazing, the next you wonder if they can tie their shoes. Yet having said all that, if a team doesn’t get good goaltending, it’s pretty much finished, so I fully understand the desire to get the good ones locked up. Do you get the feeling I’d be a very indecisive general manager?

MH: Yes, but I don’t think you have to worry about it.

Stanley Cup experience ‘doesn’t guarantee anything’ for Penguins

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The dynasty that once appeared so certain is again in the offing for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Four victories against the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final would make Pittsburgh the first franchise to win back-to-back championships in nearly 20 years and the first in the parity-driven salary cap era. It would give stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin their third Cup, one more than their boss – owner Mario Lemieux – earned during his Hall of Fame career and check off whatever boxes remain unchecked for a duo that is becoming one of the most accomplished in NHL history.

Yet for all the resiliency the Penguins have shown during their injury-marred title defense, they are taking nothing for granted heading into Game 1 on Monday night.

Not their home-ice advantage. Not their massive edge in Stanley Cup Final experience (156 games vs. just five for the Predators, all by captain Mike Fisher while playing for Ottawa a decade ago). Not their ability under coach Mike Sullivan to thrive under the pressure that once seemed to crush them.

“I think the fact that a lot of guys went through it last year and they can draw from that experience is good,” Crosby said. “But it doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Certainly not against the swaggering and well-rested Predators.

One of the last teams to qualify for the playoffs is now the last one standing between the Penguins and another parade in downtown Pittsburgh. Just don’t call Nashville the underdog. The Predators have hardly played like one while beating Chicago in a lopsided four-game sweep then outrunning St. Louis and outlasting Anaheim to reach the Cup final for the first time.

“I know we were the eighth seed but we didn’t feel like a group that we were,” Fisher said.

Now the guys from the place that calls itself “Smashville” have a chance to become the first franchise to win the Cup in its first try since Carolina did 11 years ago. That team, like this one, is based in a place hardly considered hockey hotbed a generation ago. This team, like that one, was led by coach Peter Laviolette. This team, like that one, has nothing to lose.

“This year we were kind of mediocre in the standings and maybe that’s what we needed just to come into the playoffs not really caring about home ice or who we were playing but just knowing comfortably and confidently as a team we could be in this position,” said Predators defenseman P.K. Subban.

Read more: Early struggles, injuries made Predators ‘stronger as a team’

A position the Penguins have become increasingly comfortable in under Sullivan.

The core that Crosby and Malkin led to the Cup in 2009 went through seven frustrating and fruitless springs before returning to the top in 2016. Now they’re here again, aware of the stakes but hardly caught up in the hype.

“I think that it’s a tough road no matter how you get here,” Crosby said.

“We found ways all season long and in the playoffs we’ve found ways. We’ve had that same mentality and that’s helped us. I think that’s kind of been our biggest strength.”

Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco leads Windsor Spitfires to Memorial Cup title

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Just over two months after signing his entry level deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, 20-year-old forward Jeremy Bracco left his mark on the Memorial Cup championship game.

Selected by the Maple Leafs in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, Bracco had a dominant finale on Sunday, with a goal and two assists as the Windsor Spitfires defeated the Erie Otters by a final score of 4-3.

To cap it off, Bracco assisted on the winning goal from Aaron Luchuk early in the third period.

That ends a great season for Bracco, who is listed at five-foot-nine-inches tall, but has produced impressive offensive numbers since coming to the Ontario Hockey League. He had 83 points in 57 games split between the Spitfires and Kitchener Rangers, the team he began this season with.

The Memorial Cup is always a great showcase for NHL prospects. Logan Brown, the towering center and 2016 first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, also had a pair of assists.

A pair of draft eligible players also had a big day for Windsor.

Gabriel Vilardi, the No. 4-ranked North American skater heading into next month’s draft and a potential top-five pick, had a pair of assists. Michael DiPietro, the No. 4-ranked North American goalie in Central Scouting’s final rankings, made 32 saves. He also had some luck, courtesy his goal posts, which denied Blackhawks high-scoring prospect Alex DeBrincat, among others from Erie’s talented team.

The Spitfires were defeated in the opening round of the OHL playoffs, but made it to the Memorial Cup tournament as the host team.

Laviolette: Early struggles, injuries made Predators ‘stronger as a team’

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After a second-round playoff appearance and trading for P.K. Subban several weeks later last offseason, expectations for the Nashville Predators were perhaps the highest they’ve ever been entering a new season.

And then they went out and started with an underwhelming 2-5-1 record through October.

When you think of those players that have been so critical to Nashville’s success in this run to the Stanley Cup Final versus the Penguins, most of them struggled mightily in that first month.

From PHT on Oct. 31:

Ryan Johansen isn’t helping much either. The 24-year-old center had three assists in the Preds’ first game, but just one in the next seven. He has no goals and has yet to register a point at even strength. In fact, he hasn’t even been on the ice for a Nashville goal at five-on-five!

Filip Forsberg doesn’t have a goal either, and James Neal has but one.

Meanwhile, the top pairing of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi are minus-7 and minus-6, respectively, with the possession stats to match.

And then there’s Pekka Rinne, who’s 1-4-1 with a .906 save percentage. Not helping.

Sounds bad.

But, looking back on that first month, head coach Peter Laviolette preached patience as the Predators worked to get out of that early hole.

“There was a lot of talk coming out of October about what was wrong and that we weren’t right,” said Laviolette on Sunday. “I kept saying internally, ‘That’s OK, it’s OK to struggle a little bit, to have to work to figure out who we are as a team, who we are as a group, who is driving the bus, where the seats are, and to have to figure a way out of something.’”

In November, the Predators turned around and went 9-3-2 that month.

“We were building something at that point,” said Laviolette.

“Even though December and some of January we were struggling a little bit, we were dealing with a lot of injuries. Not that that is an excuse, because every team has to deal with them. We were trying to move through that.”

For all their early problems, the Predators finished the season among the better puck possession teams in the league and qualified for a wild card spot in the West.

All of those aforementioned players that struggled in October eventually saw their fortunes turn around. Johansen had 61 points as their No. 1 center, Forsberg had another 30-plus goal season and Viktor Arvidsson (he wasn’t mentioned) emerged on that top line with his own 31-goal, 61-point season.

A pending restricted free agent, Arvidsson is surely in line for a substantial raise from the $650,000 average annual value attached to his current deal.

Oh, and the Predators’ defense, with Subban and Josi, has become arguably the best blue line group in the league. Rinne? He has a .941 save percentage in these playoffs, as Nashville rolled over the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks to get into the championship series.

From sitting 29th in the standings at the end of October, the Predators are now four wins away from a Stanley Cup. The challenge only gets more difficult, especially against a talented and deep Penguins team.

The Predators won’t have Ryan Johansen. But it looks like Mike Fisher could return for Game 1 on Monday. In the absence of both players last round against Anaheim, the Predators were lifted in part by the performance of Colton Sissons, who had a hat trick in the series clincher.

“I think when we got to the last third of the season, our guys had been through a lot,” said Laviolette. “Things had moved around a little bit. We became stronger as a team internally.

“More than anything, I think we were built in order to get to this point.”

Predators’ Fisher, Penguins’ Hornqvist could return for Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

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The Nashville Predators won’t have Ryan Johansen for the Stanley Cup Final, but it appears they will likely get another center back into their lineup for the beginning of this series.

Mike Fisher hasn’t played since Game 4 of the Western Conference Final because of an undisclosed injury.

But he did take part in Sunday’s practice ahead of Game 1 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, and provided an optimistic outlook for his status heading into Monday, telling reporters he was “ready to rock.”

The Predators could also get Craig Smith back, as well. He hasn’t played since May 7 because of a lower-body injury, but also practiced Sunday. All players currently on the trip will be available, said Predators coach Peter Laviolette.

Even with Fisher nearing a return, the Predators are still in tough at center without Johansen, especially given Pittsburgh’s talent up the middle, beginning of course with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “We had a couple good centermen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) last round that we had to face.”

For the Penguins, who have dealt with a long list of injuries, particularly on defense, in this postseason, there was promising news about the status of forward Patric Hornqvist, who has missed the last six games.

Hornqvist, who on seven occasions has scored 20 or more goals in a single season, took the warm-up skate prior to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final versus Ottawa, but didn’t play.

“We obviously chose to hold him out for reasons that we’ll keep amongst ourselves,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.

“But his status is he’s obviously been cleared for practice today. He practiced today. He’ll be a game-time decision. But based on the way that he practiced today, we’re certainly encouraged.”