Who are the hottest goalies going into the Olympics?

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As we’ve seen since NHLers began participating in the Winter Olympics in ’98, one hot goalie can make a world of difference.

Dominik Hasek stole the show en route to the Czechs capturing gold in Nagano. Finnish netminder Antero Niittymaki was named tournament MVP for the silver medal-winning Finns in 2006. Ryan Miller did much of the same in Vancouver, capturing MVP honors as the U.S. lost to Canada in the gold medal game.

So… which netminders are looking sharp heading into Sochi?

United States: Miller and Jonathan Quick

American head coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t tip his hand as to who would start in Sochi — “that’s not a question I’m ready to answer,” he told NHL.com on Friday — but Quick didn’t do himself any favors last week when he got hooked in a 4-1 loss to the Penguins.

Quick’s two games since weren’t great, either. He gave up two goals on 13 shots in a loss to Philly on the weekend, then got torched for five goals on 30 shots in a loss to Chicago two nights ago.

Miller, meanwhile, was hooked in his last outing — a 7-1 drubbing by Colorado — but had been playing well prior to that, allowing six goals over three games. He’ll have a big chance to make a mark on Bylsma tonight, as he’ll start when the Sabres host the Pens on NBCSN.

Canada: Carey Price and Roberto Luongo

Head coach Mike Babcock told Sportsnet radio Price and Luongo will likely split Canada’s first two games — against Norway and Austria — but wouldn’t say which goalie would start when Canada opens against the Norwegians on Feb. 13.

Price has been rock solid lately, rebounding from a rough stretch in January when he allowed at least four goals in five straight games. He’s given up just four goals over his last four starts and posted shutouts over Calgary (27 saves) and Carolina (36 saves).

Luongo has been average over his last five, winning just once while allowing 16 goals.

Czech Republic: Ondrej Pavelec

Pavelec might be the NHL’s most improved netminder over recent weeks, as his play took a noted uptick after the coaching change from Claude Noel to Paul Maurice. Pavelec is 7-2-0 since the switch, putting up quality wins in Anaheim (stopping 40 of 42 shots) and Carolina (stopping 28 of 29). It’s a far cry from the substandard play he displayed in the early parts of the season, and that has to be a boon for the Czechs heading into Sochi.

Sweden: Henrik Lundqvist

Here’s the big one. Lundqvist’s been outstanding lately and is peaking at the right time. He’s held opponents to two or fewer goals in nine of his last 10 games — going 8-2-0 over that stretch — and stopped 27 shots against Colorado in a 5-1 win on Tuesday. Sweden boasts one of the deepest and most talented rosters at the Olympics and will be a formidable foe should Lundqvist continue this run.

Finland: Tuukka Rask

Assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen wouldn’t commit to which goalie — Rask, Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen — would start in Sochi, but it’s widely speculated the B’s netminder will get the call. Rask’s been a model of consistency all season long and, save for some sketchy goals allowed in mid-January, has been one of the NHL’s best goalies this year, boasting a 25-13-3 record with a 2.09 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Slovakia: Jaroslav Halak

Halak continues to platoon with Brian Elliott in the St. Louis goal, but he’ll be the clear-cut No. 1 for the Slovaks in Sochi. Halak’s biggest issue, as it’s been for a while, is with consistency. Check out his last 10 games:

source:

Good overall, but some big letdown games in the mix. The Slovaks will hope that Halak can get on a crazy hot streak, much like what he did with Montreal during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Russia: The hosts have to be thrilled with their options in goal. Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky have both been great over the last month — Bobrovsky went 8-2-0 in January with a .926 save percentage, while Varlamov thrived in the face of some really high shot totals (he beat Chicago with 46 saves, Dallas with 41 and Florida with 34.)

At this point, there’s no clear-cut favorite as to who’ll start when Russia opens the tournament against Slovenia, but either option will be a quality one.

Switzerland: It stands to reason Jonas Hiller will be facing a lot of rubber in Sochi, as Switzerland was drawn into a group with the Czechs and Swedes. Thankfully for the Swiss, Hiller is enjoying a tremendous campaign in Anaheim — he was named one of the three stars for December and earned a star of the week in January. Hiller’s 24-8-4 on the year with a 2.35 GAA and .915 save percentage, but has cooled off of late by losing four of his last five starts.

The rest: Slovenia, Austria, Norway and Latvia don’t have any goalies currently playing in the NHL. The closest is Latvia’s Kristers Gudļevskis, currently playing for Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Gudlevskis is 10-8-2 for the Crunch this season, with a 2.78 GAA and .898 save percentage.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

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.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

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.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

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.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

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.