JonasHillerSwitzerland

PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Can Switzerland still sneak up?

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How long can someone be an underdog?

We’re about to find out.

Switzerland heads to Winter Olympics pegged by many as the tournament darkhorse, a squad capable of pulling upsets and possibly getting into medal contention. There’s just one problem: Switzerland might actually be too good to sneak up on anyone anymore.

“Things have changed quite a bit,” Vancouver defenseman Raphael Diaz said, per NHL.com. “I’m in the NHL and my country has more NHLers now, and I really think Switzerland is recognized as a better team.

“I’m sure other countries notice that and they prepare harder, so I’m not sure we can surprise them.”

As Diaz mentioned, Switzerland’s firmly established itself both in North American and abroad. Eleven Swiss players have appeared in NHL games this season — three fewer than Slovakia, for comparison’s sake — and that group includes veteran defenseman Mark Streit, Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller and Minnesota forward Nino Niederreiter, the highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history (fifth overall, 2010).

Internationally, Switzerland has been coming on strong as of late.

The Swiss won silver at the 2013 World Hockey Championships, medaling for the first time since 1953. They recorded wins over the Czech Republic (twice), Canada and the U.S. before falling to Sweden in the gold medal match, and this was no pushover tournament — Henrik Sedin and Paul Stastny made the all-star team, while Steve Stamkos and Ilya Kovalchuk led the Canadian and Russian teams in scoring.

For Canucks defenseman Yannick Weber — who missed the Worlds to injury, but will be playing in Sochi — the result was historic.

“It was phenomenal for Swiss hockey,” he said, per The Province. “It’s not the Olympics and people here [North America] don’t take it as seriously, but it’s still a good tournament and some of the best players are there.

“We’ve had some success in the past, beating one of the big teams once in a while, but going to that final and pretty much dominating every opponent, it helped Swiss hockey have confidence.”

The problem for Switzerland, though, is that it no longer holds minnow status. Opponents are aware of how good the Swiss have been in international competition, especially on the Olympic stage. In Vancouver four years ago, Switzerland took the Canadians to a shootout and lost a pair of hard-fought, two-goal games to the Americans.

Opponents have also likely done homework on how to beat Hiller, arguably Switzerland’s most important player.

The Anaheim goalie, enjoying a banner campaign in which he was a star of the month in December and star of the week in January, will likely carry Switzerland in these Olympics. He memorably posted 43 saves in the shootout loss Canada four years ago that stood as one of the tourney’s best performances, and his stellar play this year (25-9-4, 2.34 GAA, .917 save percentage, four shutouts) is key, because he’ll need to keep slamming the door in Sochi.

The Swiss don’t have a ton of offense — Niederreiter (11 goals, 29 points) and New Jersey’s Damien Brunner (nine goals, 17 points) will carry the load — and generally tend to play in low-scoring affairs, taking a conservative approach while frequently clogging the neutral zone.

Hiller’s aware of how vital a role he’s going to play.

“Our players can play with anybody in the world, and goaltending can always win a game,” he said, per the Globe and Mail. “Sometimes goaltending can equal out a lot of other things that a bigger team might have going for it.

“We need our best game out of everybody to have a chance to compete with the big teams, and hope that they don’t play their best. But if you have that game and the other team doesn’t, who knows?”

Crosby, Karlsson and Trocheck are NHL’s three stars of the week

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates his goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Penguins center Sidney Crosby, Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, and Panthers center Vincent Trocheck have been named the NHL’s three stars for the past week.

From the NHL:

Crosby led the League in goals and points (5-3-8) in three games as the Penguins (26-18-7, 59 points) earned four of a possible six points to secure the second Wild Card position in the Eastern Conference.

Karlsson led the League in assists and ranked second in points (0-7-7) in three games as the Senators (24-23-6, 54 points) won one of three starts for the week.

Trocheck notched six points (3-3—6) in three games, helping the Panthers (31-15-6, 68 points) widen their lead atop the Atlantic Division to six points.

Related: Red-hot Crosby could make Pens a flawed (but dangerous) dark horse

Malkin to miss third straight game with lower-body injury

Evgeni Malkin
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Evgeni Malkin‘s “nagging” lower-body injury will keep him out at least one more game.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said this morning that the star center will sit out tonight at home against the Ducks. Malkin already missed two contests this weekend in Florida. His status is day-to-day.

The Penguins lost, 6-3, in Tampa on Friday, but rebounded Saturday with a 3-2 OT win over the Panthers.

Pittsburgh’s next game after tonight’s is Wednesday at home versus the Rangers.

McDonagh out with concussion after Saturday’s altercation with Simmonds

Ryan McDonagh
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The New York Rangers will be without Ryan McDonagh tonight at home to New Jersey, the club announcing this morning that the defenseman is out with a concussion.

McDonagh left Saturday’s game in Philadelphia following an altercation with the Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds that ended with McDonagh taking a punch to the face from Simmonds.

Simmonds received a match penalty and was thrown out of the game, but did not receive any supplemental discipline.

Given the standings, the Rangers can ill afford to lose McDonagh for long. They play in Pittsburgh Wednesday, followed by three home games against Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

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Lucic’s plan is to ‘remain a King’ for remainder of career

Milan Lucic, Alex Burrows, Dan Hamhuis
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Tuesday night, Milan Lucic will play his first game in Boston as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

It should be an emotional return for the big 27-year-old winger. In an interview with the L.A. Times, he recalled his time with his former club fondly, saying how great it was to be a “part of one of the best-ever eras to be a Bruin.”

A pending unrestricted free agent, Lucic also commented on his contract negotiations with the Kings.

“Nothing to get excited about,” he said. “There’s been two or three little talks here and there. My plan is to remain a King and hopefully finish off my career here. Like I said, I go day by day and you never know what tomorrow is going to bring.”

Lucic has 12 goals and 18 assists in 50 games this season. Though the Kings reportedly want to keep him, the question is whether they can find the cap space to make it happen.

Los Angeles already has Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik, Kyle Clifford, Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, and Jonathan Quick locked up long term. Plus, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will require new deals after next season.

Related: Why Lucic is an interesting pending UFA