Petr Nedved

Nedved’s ‘strange’ life takes him to Sochi

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SOCHI, Russia — Petr Nedved never expected to be back at the Winter Olympics. Not 20 years after his first and only other Games, where he represented a different country no less. But then, Nedved hasn’t exactly lived a typical life. Perhaps he shouldn’t have counted it out.

“My life has been a strange journey,” Nedved conceded, somewhat jokingly, on Friday. The 42-year-old, now with a graying beard, has traveled to Sochi to play for the Czech Republic, undoubtedly to the surprise of many North American hockey fans who thought he’d long since hung up the skates.

The last time Nedved appeared in an NHL uniform was 2007, as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Since then, he’s been playing – and playing rather well, mind you – in the top Czech league. The last six seasons he’s been piling up points for his hometown club in Liberec.

As for that “strange” life of his? Maybe a better word for it is adventurous.

Let’s start in 1989, when it was still communist Czechoslovakia and Nedved was only 17. During a trip to Calgary for a midget tournament, he snuck away from his team, went to the police, and defected to Canada. His parents said they had no knowledge of his plans.

Following a prolific junior season with the Seattle Thunderbirds, he was drafted second overall by the Vancouver Canucks. He would go on to play 982 NHL games for seven different teams. He would win a silver medal representing Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics. He would even marry, and separate from, a supermodel, Veronika Varekova.

No wonder then that Nedved was in a reflective mood following practice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where he held court with a group of reporters, some of whom had covered him all the way throughout his NHL career.

“I knew that you guys didn’t think I was still playing,” he joked. “Here I am.”

He recalled the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, where his Canadian team ended up eliminating the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. He remembered the “mixed feeling” he had while his teammates were celebrating the win over his former compatriots. He lamented losing the gold-medal game to Sweden in a shootout.

Two decades later – as if it wasn’t improbable enough that he’d be back at the Olympics – one of his teammates will be his old friend, Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr, 41, was drafted fifth overall, three spots after Nedved, also in 1990. The pair played together in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We have the same sense of humor,” said Nedved, “so we don’t even have to say anything and we’re laughing.”

Perhaps they’ll share a laugh over the fact one of Nedved’s teammates back in Liberec is 16 years old.

Why is he still playing with kids less than half his age?

“I love the game,” he said. “I love the competition. I still have the drive.”

These Games will be his swansong, however.

“This is it for me,” he said. “This is the last season of my career. It’s time.”

How much of an impact Nedved will have against the top players in the world remains to be seen. He knows he’s not a young man anymore. Not young for Olympic hockey, anyway.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to play every game,” he said.

But former NHL defenseman and current teammate Tomas Kaberle thinks Nedved can still be a difference-maker.

“Sometimes he needs only one shot, and he’ll put it in,” said Kaberle. “Sometimes one chance in a hockey game makes a big difference.”

The Czech Republic open its Olympic tournament Wednesday versus Sweden.

‘We love him’ — Bolts heap praise on Stamkos as uncertain future awaits

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 26:  Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 26, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This may have been Steve Stamkos‘ last game in a Tampa Bay uniform.

If it was, it didn’t go according to script.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special.

Stamkos stunned the hockey world on Friday night by making his playoff debut in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, returning from a two-month absence due to a blood clotting issue.

After undergoing vascular surgery and spending weeks on blood thinners, the captain was cleared to return for his team’s most crucial game of the season — one the Bolts lost, 2-1, the narrowest of margins.

The outcome didn’t take away from how Tampa’s players and coaches felt about Stamkos’ return

“He’s an extremely important player on our team, and we weren’t quite sure when this was going to happen, but a decision was made that he could play for Game 7,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “It was an emotional boost for all of us. The guys were really excited to have him back, and I thought he did a great job.”

By the boxscore, Stamkos’ impact on the game was minimal. He received less than 12 minutes of ice time and finished minus-1. But he did have two shots on net — one of them showing just how dangerous, even in a limited capacity, No. 91 can be:

“I thought I beat him,” Stamkos told NHL.com. “It just went through him and out the other side.”

The focus for Stamkos and the Bolts now shifts to his contract situation. Slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the former 60-goal scorer projects to be the biggest star to hit the market since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter became UFAs in 2012.

Those two, you may recall, cashed in quite nicely, signing identical 13-year, $98 million deals.

So you can see why Stamkos’ future is of great interest across the league.

Of course, nobody has officially ruled out the 26-year-old’s return to Tampa Bay, and tonight’s drama probably strengthened some pretty serious emotional ties. Remember, this is the only team he’s ever known. The Lightning made Stamkos the first overall pick in 2008 and, six years later, the 10th captain in franchise history. He won two Rocket Richard trophies with the Bolts, and played in a pair of Eastern Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final.

He’s the team’s leader and face of the franchise. That’s not small stuff.

But in the end, it might not matter. It’s important to remember the Lightning got to this point without Stamkos because they’ve got incredible depth and some really good young players. Those young players will need to be paid too, and there might not be enough money under the cap for GM Steve Yzerman to make Stamkos an offer he can’t refuse.

Which is why it was hard not to listen to comments the Bolts made tonight, and wonder if they’re aware of what the future probably holds.

“We hope we can stick together, but you just never know,” Boyle said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Thought we were destined for some pretty special things.”

Here’s your Stanley Cup Final TV schedule

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks skates on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on November 19, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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From the NHL:

The National Hockey League announced today the schedule for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, which begins Monday, May 30, in Pittsburgh.

Based on their superior regular-season point total, the Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins will host Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final, as well as Games 5 and 7, if necessary.

The Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks will host Games 3 and 4, as well as Game 6, if necessary.

In the U.S., NBC will televise Game 1 and, if necessary, Games 5-7. NBCSN will broadcast Game 2. Television information for Games 3 and 4 will be announced at a later date.

Game 1 Monday, May 30 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 2 Wednesday, June 1 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBCSN
Game 3 Saturday, June 4 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 4 Monday, June 6 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose TBD
Game 5* Thursday, June 9 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC
Game 6* Sunday, June 12 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at San Jose NBC
Game 7* Wednesday, June 15 8 p.m. San Jose at Pittsburgh NBC

Media day will be on Sunday, May 29, time TBD. PHT will be on location for the entirety of the final, and a reminder that all games will also be broadcast on NBC Sports Radio.

PHT’s Mike Halford (that’s me) and Jason Brough will be providing analysis for both pre- and post-game shows.

Pens edge Bolts, advance to first Stanley Cup Final in seven years

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For one night, anyway, the Steel City loved it some Rust.

In a thrilling and drama-filled affair, the unlikeliest of heroes — Pens rookie Bryan Rust — stole the show, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Rust’s heroics sent Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.

Seven years ago against the Red Wings, it was depth forward Max Talbot that etched himself into Penguins lore, scoring both goals in the decisive Game 7.

Rust pretty much did the same on Friday.

The former Notre Dame standout opened the scoring in the second period, then took all of 30 seconds to wipe out Jonathan Drouin‘s equalizer. It was a performance that’ll long be remembered in Pittsburgh, as it was the organization’s first Game 7 victory since — you guessed it — 2009, when Talbot led the Pens to victory over Detroit.

As mentioned above, this contest was filled with drama. The theatrics actually began prior to puck drop, when Bolts captain Steve Stamkos was added to the lineup — his first game since being diagnosed with a blood clotting issue on Mar. 31.

Stamkos’ playoff debut was somewhat muted. He finished minus-1 with just 11:55 of ice time, though it’s tough to suggest much more could’ve been expected from a guy that hadn’t played in two months.

At times tonight, it seemed nothing, not even Stamkos’ presence, was going to slow Pittsburgh down. The Pens out-shot the Lightning 39-17 and had it not been for some terrific netminding from Andrei Vasilevskiy, the score could’ve been much worse.

That said, Tampa Bay did have its chances in the third period, and finished with a frantic flurry around Pens goalie Matt Murray (who wasn’t busy, but finished with 16 saves).

In the end, the Lightning will undoubtedly regret the missed opportunity to finish this series off in Game 6 at home.

The Penguins, meanwhile, have to be thrilled with the form shown over the final two games of this series. They’re playing some terrific hockey, getting contributions across the board and now staring at a Stanley Cup Final matchup with San Jose — which promises to be a fast, offensive and compelling series.

Game 1 gets underway at Consol on Monday. Have to imagine Pittsburgh can’t wait.

Video: Drouin equalizes, but Rust strikes again 30 seconds later

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Bryan Rust is really having himself a series.

After opening the scoring in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, Rust took matters into his own hands after Jonathan Drouin evened the score for Tampa Bay, notching his second goal of the game — just 30 seconds after Drouin scored — to put Pittsburgh back out in front, 2-1.

Before digging into the Rust goal (posted above), let’s take a moment to appreciate Drouin’s snipe, one that whizzed by Pittsburgh netminder Matt Murray:

Now, back to Rust.

With that second goal he’s now racked up eight points for the playoffs, just three back of the 11 he put up over the course of the entire regular season. The former Notre Dame standout has become a major storyline, and now sits tied with Patric Hornqvist for the team lead in even-strength playoff goals.

Not bad for a guy that spent a fair chunk of the year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, eh?