Sochi notes: Women’s hockey tourney has an interesting format

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Hey, have you missed me? You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you. Sigh. Well, I’ve been in Sochi for a few days now. I’ll be here until the end of the Olympics, which will culminate with the men’s gold-medal game on Feb. 23. I’m hoping I can pop in here from time to time and share a few offhand thoughts on the hockey, and just being in Russia. Otherwise I’ll be writing stories that appear on both PHT and NBCOlympics.com, or in some cases just NBCOlympics.com.

OK, onto my first list of notes:

—- Full disclosure: I’d never covered international women’s hockey until I came to Sochi, and I hadn’t really followed it since the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Like most hockey fans, I knew the basics – Canada and the United States are really good, everyone else is trying to catch up – but it’s not easy to parachute in (figuratively speaking; they have an airport and everything here) and start asking questions. Not good ones, at least. Fortunately, the American and Canadian players/coaches/management have all been super friendly and open during the media availabilities I’ve attended. I guess they know it’s important to promote their sport during the Olympics, which is really the only time there’s a significant media contingent on hand to cover it.

—- They’ve got an interesting format to the women’s tourney this year. In the preliminary round, the top four ranked teams — Canada, U.S., Switzerland, and Finland – will play each other – and the bottom four teams – Sweden, Japan, Russia, and Germany – will play each other. After that, the top two teams from the first group (probably the U.S. and Canada) will advance to the semis while the bottom two teams from the first group will play off against the top two teams from the second group for the other two spots in the semis. Got it? Good. A couple of reasons I figure they’re doing this. 1. They want to guarantee at least one game between Canada and the U.S. 2. They don’t want the blowouts we saw in 2010, like Canada 18, Slovakia 0 or the U.S. 13, Russia 0. Blowouts aren’t fun to watch, and they only shine a spotlight on the disparity between the top and bottom teams. I believe there’s genuine concern that women’s hockey will be removed from the Olympics if the rest of the world doesn’t start catching up to the two powerhouses.

—- I watched the U.S. and German women scrimmage earlier this week, and the disparity was vast. You could see it right off the bat in the warm-ups. On one side, the Americans were ripping shots crossbar and in; on the other, the Germans were — and I’m not trying to be mean here — basically floating theirs. They didn’t keep score in the scrimmage, but I can tell you it wasn’t close and the Americans ended with a really high Corsi rating.

—- I don’t want to say U.S. star Amanda Kessel (sister of Phil) waffled when asked if she was back to game shape after skipping the pre-Olympic tour to manage an injured hip (which required surgery in 2012), but she definitely didn’t give a resounding yes. “Getting there” was how she put it. “Decent.” She did look pretty good in the scrimmage though, and coach Katey Stone said later she was “100 percent.”

—- I wrote on Wednesday about new Canadian coach Kevin Dineen’s decision to take the captaincy away from women’s hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser and give it to Caroline Ouellette. The more I think about it, the more I wonder just what was going on with this team last year. Remember that Dineen only replaced coach Dan Church in December after the latter abruptly resigned. So that’s a coaching change and a captaincy change right before the biggest tournament in women’s hockey, which only occurs once every four years. Clearly Dineen felt the team needed a shakeup, and I guess you have to give him credit for making a tough move he believed in, because it would’ve been a lot easier to just go with the status quo. I’ll still be surprised if it’s anyone but Canada and the U.S. in the final game, but the U.S. sure does seem like it has a great chance to snap Canada’s streak of three straight gold medals. And of the two favorites, if one is going to get upset by another country, I’d have to bet it’s going to be Canada.

—- I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories of reporters and their unfinished hotel rooms. Well, mine is just fine, thanks. I did, however, have a panic the other morning that I’d lost my wallet. Fortunately, it was right there in my pocket the whole time, but I was sweating it big time for a bit. I just can’t imagine the hassle of trying to replace all the credit cards and other stuff in my wallet while in Russia. You may be wondering, how could I possibly think I’d lost my wallet when it was in my pocket? Good question. Best I can explain is my whole pockets routine has been thrown off over here. Usually I keep three things in my pockets – wallet, keys, phone. Same three things every day. Over here, it’s totally different. I have my own phone and a temporary local phone, and I don’t always take my wallet with me, plus I’ve got credentials hanging around my neck and sometimes I carry a little digital recorder and everyone’s speaking a bunch of different languages and I didn’t sleep for the first 36 hours I was here because I stayed up to watch the SEA-HAWKS! win the Super Bowl. You can see how a blogger’s pockets routine could get thrown off. I figure it’s a bit like North American hockey players having to adjust to the bigger international ice surface. I have no idea where my keys are, by the way.

I’ll leave you with one of the many pictures hanging in the hallways of the massive main press center here. Just the definition of old school Olympics.

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The Buzzer: Bob blanks Rangers; Sabres drop fourth straight

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Player of the Night: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bob made 36 saves and recorded his 21st career shutout in helping the Blue Jackets to a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers. The win was the Blue Jackets’ third in a row while New York was blanked for the first time this season.

Highlight of the Night: Bob was on his game:

MISC:

• Despite the loss, Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding for the Rangers in stopping 40 shots.

Artemi Panarin’s power play goal in the third period put the game out of reach:

• New York has dropped two in a row since their six-game winning streak.

Tomas Tatar snapped a 1-1 tie midway through the third period and Dylan Larkin added the insurance tally as the Detroit Red Wings beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1.

• The Sabres, who have now lost four straight, had their chances, but Jimmy Howard stopped 19 of 20 shots and was thankful for one of his posts:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Columbus 2, New York Rangers 0
Detroit 3, Buffalo 1

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Matthew Tkachuk reportedly suspended one game for inciting line brawl

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The Detroit Red Wings felt like the punishment didn’t fit the crime as Luke Witkowski received an automatic 10-game suspension for returning to the ice during that line brawl with the Calgary Flames. How will they feel about Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk reportedly receiving a one-game suspension for his “crime,” then?

Please note that this news was broken by TSN, while it hasn’t been confirmed by the NHL yet, so the explanation video is also not available.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Tkachuk had a lot to do with the brawl, as Witkowski returned to the ice because of his actions. You can also see the moment here:

This marks the second time Tkachuk’s been suspended by the NHL, as he sat two games for this hit on Drew Doughty, which ultimately served as the first chapter in his hate-fest with the Los Angeles Kings:

It’s fitting with such an agitating figure like Tkachuk that the decision stands as polarizing. Some are stunned that the NHL would tack on a one-game suspension after he was ejected for his actions during the 8-2 win for the Red Wings:

Others believe that Tkachuk had it coming.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, meanwhile, the Red Wings believe that it wasn’t nearly sufficient. After the game, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports that Tkachuk said that Witkowski was looking for an excuse to return and that he just gave him “a poke.”

Apparently, this time, Tkachuk also poked the bear and will have to sit one game in timeout as punishment.

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.

NHL GMs pleased so far with crack down on slashing

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MONTREAL (AP) — If there are any misgivings about the NHL’s crackdown on slashes to the hands, they are not shared by the general managers.

Teams are scoring about half a goal more since officials made the quick tap to the hands or the top of the stick the NHL’s most frequently called minor penalty. The rule was aimed not only at protecting players after some gruesome hand injuries last season, but also to eliminate it as a tactic to cause skilled players to lose control of the puck.

”It’s still a work in progress but in general I think the standard has been very positive,” the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Yzerman said after a three-hour meeting of the league’s 31 GMs.

The meeting was held at the former Windsor Hotel, where the NHL was founded in November, 1917. It was one of several events this weekend to mark the league’s centennial.

There were no major decisions made. The GMs and league officials discussed issues in the game like goaltender interference reviews, offside challenges and the crackdown on faceoff violations.

The talks helped set the agenda for a more in-depth, three-day meeting in March, where rule change proposals are usually made.

The slashing crackdown has seen a parade to the penalty box, but the calls look to be here to stay.

”I think people are a little frustrated when you’re getting those penalties and power plays against, but hopefully it smooths out and everybody adjusts to it,” Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”I think that’s what everybody is anticipating.

”It’s frustrating going through the process, but hopefully we get to the point where it’s effective and it’s not being done anymore and there are not as many calls.”

Former enforcer George Parros, the new director of player safety, made his first presentation at a GMs meeting and much of it dealt with slashing. He is mainly concerned with violent incidents, like the ugly finger injury suffered by defenseman Marc Methot last season and Johnny Gaudreau‘s hand injury. He said the more common ”love taps” can be handled by the officials on the ice.

”I focused on slashes that are done intentionally, behind the play, and landing on the hands-fingertips area,” Parros said. ”It’s a new standard. Everyone’s getting used to it. If it’s behind the play and it’s intentional and there’s some force to it, then it’s a warning. The variable is force.”

Overall, Parros likes what he’s seen on the ice.

”I gave them an update on numbers and stuff from last year and in general, the trends have been downward,” he said. ”We’ve got less suspensions, less injuries, all things like that. ”The game is being played in a great fashion right now and we hope to continue to do that.”

Colin Campbell, the league’s director of hockey operations, said the rise in scoring may spring from more than just a slashing crackdown.

”I think it’s a reflection of younger players in the league,” he said. ”We’re down to an average of 23 and 24 being our biggest segment of players. I think our players in rush reads and down-low coverage are faster and more talented, but older players are more defensive and have more patience. Younger players make more mistakes, but is there anything wrong with that? We always say if you want more goals you need bad goalies and more mistakes.”

Offside challenges is a contentious issue. When brought in last season, there were complaints that coaches were using them too often and were slowing down the games. This season, if a challenge fails, a minor penalty is called. That has cut down challenges dramatically.

But Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli said: ”I think the sentiment is generally positive on putting that minor penalty in and reducing the number of challenges.”

Goaltender interference challenges also were discussed, but pinning down a consistent standard in judging whether a player has interfered with or been pushed into a goalie is elusive.

They were also to discuss making penalties called in overtime last only one minute instead of two to boost 3-on-3 time.

One thing there appeared to be no talk of was trades.

”You never see any of that here. There’s not enough time,” Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello said.

Golden Knights can’t contain excitement in getting a healthy goalie back

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Everyone, you can downgrade the Vegas Golden Knights’ goalie situation from “absurd” to … I don’t know, tenuous?

Eh, we can fuss over the right way to describe the situation any time. For now, the Golden Knights are delighted that Malcolm Subban has been activated from IR, as mentioned on their official website, and boy was it mentioned on Twitter.

The fawning borders on “Your friend who’s fallen into puppy love and is totally overwhelmed, making it both adorable and kind of annoying.”

Aw.

Sheesh, we get i–

*rolls eyes*

At least it all started with this helpful update on who’s healthy and who’s not:

Meanwhile, Dylan Ferguson returns to the WHL.

OK, so let’s take a look at how that big group did so far, remembering that the Golden Knights are still keeping it going with a fairly astounding 11-6-1 record.

Marc-Andre Fleury: 3-1-0, .925 save percentage, suffered what might have been a concussion.

Maxime Lagace: 3-5-1, .864 save percentage, didn’t fall apart altogether despite being wildly inexperienced for the task at hand.

Oscar Dansk: 3-0-0, .946 save percentage. When he got hurt, things went from ridiculous to absurd.

Subban: 2-0-0, .936 save percentage. He’s back, did you hear?

Ferguson: One goal allowed, one save in 9:14 of play.

*takes a breath*

So, yeah. that’s quite the run of netminders. Subban was playing remarkably well before he was injured, and it’s worth remembering that the Golden Knights essentially chose him over Calvin Pickard. Time will tell if that’s the right decision for the franchise, but right now, they’re clearly over the moon just to have a more NHL-appropriate goalie available again.

Sometimes it’s about the simplest things in life, eh?

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.