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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?”

With Rust still day-to-day, Sullivan isn’t in a ‘hypothetical’ mood when it comes to his lineup

Pittsburgh Penguins' Mike Sullivan stands behind Sidney Crosby (87) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals in Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan still has forward Bryan Rust listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury after he took a controversial hit from Patrick Marleau in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

(The league stated Tuesday that there will be no suspension for Marleau.)

As for Rust, who has six goals and nine points in these playoffs, his status hasn’t changed since the conclusion of the game. But with Game 2 set for Wednesday, Sullivan may have a lineup decision ahead of him if Rust isn’t able to play.

Sullivan, who said Rust is still being evaluated, was asked about the possibility of Eric Fehr moving up onto a line with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, where Rust had been playing.

Naturally, Sullivan praised Fehr but didn’t want to delve into the possibilities for his lineup tomorrow.

“If he were to go back on that line, he’s a pretty good player. Regardless of which line he plays on, (Fehr) has had the ability to adapt his game. The one thing he does bring to the respective lines, he’s another center iceman that can take faceoffs in the defensive zone,” Sullivan told reporters.

“He has a real good awareness in the D zone. He’s pretty strong on the wall. He brings all of those elements to that line that we choose to put him on. We’ll make decisions accordingly depending on who we think is available for our lineup. But hypotheticals is not the world that we live in.”

‘It was frustrating for me,’ says Tarasenko after struggling offensively versus Sharks

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the St. Louis Blues in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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St. Louis Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko has opened up about his play in the Western Conference Final versus the San Jose Sharks, who held the talented forward off the score sheet in five of six games.

It wasn’t until the third period of Game 6 that Tarasenko finally broke his slump, scoring twice as St. Louis tried one last desperation comeback attempt. It didn’t work. The Blues were eliminated and the Sharks are in the Stanley Cup Final.

“They played really tight and they backchecked so hard,” said Tarasenko, as per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s just experience. It was frustrating for me. I wish I could do better. I’m supposed to do better.”

After a 40-goal regular season, the 24-year-old Tarasenko’s point production through the first two rounds — versus Chicago and Dallas — was solid, with 13 points in 14 games.

But the Sharks kept him in check.

His lack of production became a key focal point as the third-round series carried on. Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock, who signed a one-year extension to stay in St. Louis, admitted Tarasenko was “learning hard lessons” against the Sharks and that he had to fight through the tight checking in order to produce offensively.

As the series continued, Hitchcock added that Tarasenko just needed to play within the system, and that getting away from that is perhaps a “natural tendency” for young players pressing to make things happen in crucial situations.

There had been talk about a rift between Tarasenko and Hitchcock, especially after video replays showed the two in a brief but heated exchange at the bench during the first round. Of course, the coach later downplayed it.

As the Blues’ playoff run ended, there was speculation about why, exactly, Tarasenko didn’t address the media on the same day the rest of his teammates did.

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Ben Frederickson:

More importantly, Tarasenko’s no comment closed the book on his season without addressing the elephant in the dressing room.

There is growing speculation of friction between Tarasenko and the Blues. Is there a rift between the star and his club?

If I’m a member of that front office, I sure would have liked a player under contract until 2023 to squash such a story on Saturday.

On the subject of any perceived issues between the Blues organization and Tarasenko, both parties responded:

 

 

The Russians say they’re in ‘negotiations’ with the NHL to get Voynov into the World Cup

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Yesterday in Pittsburgh, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear that Slava Voynov was still suspended and, because of that, would not be allowed to play in the upcoming World Cup.

Bettman also said that the Russian Ice Hockey Federation had been told as much.

However, it seems the Russians — who last week added Voynov to their World Cup roster — still haven’t given up on trying to get the 26-year-old defensemen into the tournament.

From Russian News Agency TASS:

“The Russian Ice Hockey Federation is holding negotiations with the organizers of the World Cup – the NHL – concerning the issue of national team’s defender Vyacheslav Voynov,” the RHF’s press service told TASS on Tuesday adding that besides the Russian and US sides the negotiations also involve Rene Fasel, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

“The Russian Ice Hockey Federation hopes that the organizers of the international competition will make a positive decision on the issue and the defender will be allowed to be included in the roster of the Russian national team,” the RHF added.

Known in the United States as Slava Voynov he played in the past for NHL’s Los Angeles Kings before the North American Hockey League suspended him over domestic violence charges and the player returned last autumn back home, where he is currently playing for the national team and KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg club.

Time will tell if the Russians can convince the NHL to change its stance. They could sure use Voynov, given the relative weakness of their defense. But Bettman did not sound yesterday like he was open to a negotiation.

The Russians, for the record, have maintained that it’s not the NHL’s decision to make.

So perhaps that’s the big question here — who has the final say on the matter? Officially, the World Cup “is a joint effort of the NHLPA and the NHL, in cooperation with the International Ice Hockey Federation.”

It’s just not entirely clear how that bit of boilerplate applies to the Voynov situation.

Report: Bruins’ Khokhlachev to sign in KHL

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Alexander Khokhlachev’s time with the Boston Bruins is up, according to a report out of Russia that has the 22-year-old forward signing with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL.

The deal reportedly won’t be announced until after June 30; Khokhlachev is under contract with the B’s until then. But the fact he’s apparently decided to depart for the KHL should come as no surprise.

A second-round draft pick in 2011, Khokhlachev has spent the last three seasons piling up points in the AHL; however, he’s only appeared in nine NHL games.

Earlier this month, his agent told CBS Boston, “Alexander did not really get a chance for all the years that he signed a deal, for four years, the deals he signed with Boston, didn’t really get a chance to play in the National Hockey League, so he won’t stay in the organization.”

SKA acquired Khokhlachev’s KHL rights last summer.

Related: Khokhlachev just wants a chance