PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Can Slovakia surprise again?

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Not much was expected from Slovakia four years ago in Vancouver, and not much is expected heading into Sochi.

But if the Slovaks showed anything in 2010, it’s that expectations don’t mean much.

Despite star power in defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Zdeno Chara and forwards Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra, and Marian Hossa, the team lacked the depth of the major powers and was put in a tough group in Vancouver (Russia, the Czech Republic, and Latvia). Slovakia turned a lot of heads though, beating the Russians in the group stage, edging Sweden 4-3 in the quarterfinals, then dropping hard-fought decisions to Canada and Finland in the semifinal and bronze medal games. The fourth-place finish marked Slovakia’s highest ranking since the NHL began sending players to the Olympics.

So…what will the Slovaks do for an encore?

Let’s put it this way — it would be a far bigger Cinderella story if they finished fourth this time around.

There are a few reasons for that. For one, their top scorer in 2010, Demitra, passed away tragically in the Lokomotiv air disaster. Gaborik, meanwhile, will miss the games due to a broken collarbone and the Slovaks don’t have anyone new on their roster to fill the offensive void, putting tremendous pressure on Hossa to essentially lead the charge on his own.

Slovakia will also be without Visnovsky, the Isles blueliner who returned from a concussion on Jan. 27, but doesn’t feel up to playing in the tournament. Consequently, Slovakia has just four NHL defenseman on the roster, though one of them — Andrej Sekera — is having a banner campaign.

Finally, as challenging as their ’10 group was, the Slovaks drew perhaps even tougher competition this time around as they’ll have to face both Russia and the United States. In the end, their only victory might be against Slovenia, which didn’t even qualify for the 2010 games and only has one NHLer in Anze Kopitar.

All hope isn’t lost, though. When Slovakia was surprising opponents in 2010, goaltender Jaroslav Halak was at the center of it. He turned aside 36 of 37 shots in regulation against Russia and finished with a tournament-high 173 saves.

Following the Vancouver Games, Halak carried the eighth seed Montreal Canadiens past the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2010 playoffs with some spectacular goaltending performances.

He was traded to St. Louis that summer and while he’s had some good seasons with the Blues, injuries have prevented him replicating the playoff success he had as a Hab. This will be our first real chance to see if he’s truly a big game goaltender… or if it was just one magical year.

For his part, Halak doesn’t seem to think Slovakia’s success or failure will come down to him specifically.

“Hopefully we can get it together and play as a team,” Halak told IIHF.com. “We’ll see what happens. We have to play one game at a time. That should be the whole approach.”

So basically they need to be more than the sum of their parts — because when you do the math, they just don’t add up to much.

The Buzzer: Pacioretty continues hot streak

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Players of the Night:

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens: Here’s a name you haven’t seen often in these parts this season. But Pacioretty had two goals tonight, the opener for the Canadiens and the game-winner with 1:18 left in the third period to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He also added an assist on Montreal’s other goal. Truth be told, Pacioretty has been sizzling lately with six goals and an assist in his past six games.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson had a quiet night for the most part until the third period, but he was stellar when called upon and made 23 saves, including a second-period beauty (which you will see below) to help his team to a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night:

James Neal had all the moves to help the Vegas Golden Knights secure a point on the road in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.

John Gibson got just enough on this puck to redirect it off the post and out for quite the save:

Factoid of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Panthers 4, Golden Knights 3 (OT)

Canadiens 3, Capitals 2

Ducks 2, Kings 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Henrique, Kesler too much for Quick, Kings in 2-1 Ducks win

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Jonathan Quick did all he could.

The posts behind him helped on a couple occasions, but Quick was everything the Los Angeles Kings needed to break out of their five-game losing streak, which they entered Friday wearing like a ball and chain.

But while Quick was solid in the crease, making 29 saves, the men in front of him couldn’t replicate their goalie’s performance in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

The Kings have now lost six straight and just two of their past 10 and are tied with four teams, including the Ducks, who sit on 53 points and just outside the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Ducks-Kings rivalry has become quite the grind ’em out slugfest over time, and despite their recent downward spiral, the Kings weren’t going to roll over and die when the puck dropped, even if they played 24 hours earlier.

This rivalry doesn’t allow for one team to not show up, despite whatever mitigating circumstances may be available.

And neither team was giving the other any allowances, evidenced by a 0-0 scoreline after 40 minutes.

The Ducks struck first in the third frame as Adam Henrique finally willed a puck behind Quick, who had puzzled Anaheim’s offense for 42 minutes and change.

Henrique’s individual effort on the goal began a few seconds earlier as he won a foot race to the puck to get it into the Ducks’ zone, dove to make sure it stayed there and they got up and went to the net, where he picked up a loose puck that and put it in the back of the net for a 1-0 lead at the 17:55 mark.

That lead was shortlived, however.

The Kings struck back two-and-a-half minutes later as some extended offensive zone time by the Kings resulted in Alex Iafallo flicking a puck up and over John Gibson off a rebound to ruin his shutout bid at 4:48.

The Ducks would get the final say.

Jakob Silfverberg‘s excellent forecheck kept the Kings from clearing the puck out of their zone.

The puck found its way to the point, where Francois Beauchemin unleashed a high point shot that was redirected down and under Quick by Ryan Kesler for the eventual game-winner.

Gibson’s night may have been a little quieter than his counterpart 200-feet away, but he was on point when he needed to be, making 23 of 24 saves, including getting just enough on Iafallo’s second-period shot to steer it off the post and out to keep the game 0-0 at that point.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings vs Anaheim Ducks

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Los Angeles Kings

Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Tanner PearsonTrevor LewisTyler Toffoli

Alex IafalloNick ShoreMarian Gaborik

Kyle CliffordTorrey MitchellAndy Andreoff

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty

Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez

Kevin Gravel– Christian Folin

Starting Goalie: Darcy Kuemper

NHL on NBCSN: Kings look to end losing streak vs. Ducks

Anaheim Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting Goalie: John Gibson

Red Fisher, as told by those who knew him

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Red Fisher is a mythical name in sports journalism.

Fisher’s death on Friday at 91 sent shockwaves through the National Hockey League community, and stories upon stories — snippets of Fisher and his life — began circulation around the Internet, many on Twitter by those who worked alongside him and those who had the pleasure to speak with the man.

Fisher’s life will be immortalized in print in the coming days. Michael Farber wrote this beautifully done piece for the Montreal Gazette already today. A must-read.

Here’s what his contemporary’s are saying, those that revere him and the people who Fisher made an impact on in so many ways: