PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Are the Swedes healthy enough?

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When Olympic rosters were announced in early January, each nation knew it was unlikely all players would remain healthy until Sochi.

Sweden, however, probably didn’t count on half its roster getting hurt.

An exaggeration? Yes, but only slightly. The Swedes endured a tough January as a number of key players went down with injury:

— Henrik Zetterberg missed two games to a back ailment, having already missed 11 earlier in the year with a herniated disc.

— Daniel Alfredsson missed six games with back spasms.

— Alex Steen missed 11 games with a concussion, and is currently playing with a fractured toe.

— Loui Eriksson missed 15 games with a concussion, his second of the year.

— Henrik Sedin missed eight games with a rib injury.

— Johan Franzen missed 16 games with a concussion, returned to play once, then was put on IR again.

In the case of Sedin and Franzen, their injuries were serious enough to rule them out of Sochi, replaced by Marcus Johansson and Gustav Nyquist respectively. In Sedin, the Swedes lost an experienced international performer (part of the ’06 gold medal team in Turin) and a top center; in Franzen, they lost a quality goalscorer who thrived in his last international competition, scoring nine points in seven games at the 2012 Worlds.

It’ll be very interesting to see how Sweden fares without the Sedin twins playing together. Swedish head coach Par Marts had planned on playing them on the same line and in a top-six forward role, and has been forced to re-jig his lineup — Daniel will now be centered by Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom.

“I think [Henrik and Backstrom] are pretty similar in their playing styles,” Sedin said, per the Olympic News Service. “They like to keep the puck and move it up, so I think it will work very well. He is an incredible passer and a smart player, so it’s going to be fun.”

“Of course, it is sad for [Henrik], but that’s just how it is. He has never been injured, so this is definitely the longest I’ve played without him.”

Thankfully for Sweden, the positions considered to be its greatest strengths — defense and goaltending — are operating at full health. Henrik Lundqvist was razor sharp for the Rangers leading up to the Olympics and, on Monday, Marts rolled out what looked to be three formidable defense pairings, as Phoenix’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson skated with 2012 Norris winner Erik Karlsson, while the Detroit and Chicago boys — Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson — made up the other pairs.

That left a pair of pretty quality NHL blueliners on the outside looking in. Henrik Tallinder and Alex Edler were tagged as the seventh and eighth defensemen, which illustrates just how deep (and healthy) the Swedish blueline is.

“I think there are a lot of teams that have pretty good teams, and we’re definitely one of them,” Karlsson told NHL.com. “We have a lot of guys that have been around for a while and even won in the past. We have some younger guys that have been playing really good lately.”

With that said, it does seem the x-factor is health. Zetterberg, Alfredsson, Steen and Eriksson will need to put their respective ailments behind them, which is a tall order given the compacted nature of the Olympic schedule. Teams could end up playing as many as seven games in 10 days to win gold — and make no mistake, gold is the goal for Sweden.

“People talk about Canada, the U.S. and Russia, and rightly so. They’ve got great teams,” Alfredsson said. “But we feel we can give them a good match, and we’re looking forward to playing one of those teams.”

The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

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Player of the night. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played six games this season. Forward Nikita Kucherov has scored a goal in all of them.

He continued that goal scoring streak on Monday night in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit by scoring a pair of goals, including the game-winner to help lift them to their eighth consecutive win over the Detroit Red Wings.

With that win the Lightning now have the best record in the NHL, while Kucherov’s seven goals are the second most in the league, trailing only Alex Ovechkin (nine).

Kucherov has seen his production increase every year he has been in the NHL. He set a career-high with 40 goals a year ago and seems like he is on track to top that mark this season. Now playing in his age 24 season he should be right in the thick of his prime years in the NHL. When it comes to pure skill and offensive production there are only a handful of players in the league that can top what Kucherov is doing.

Highlight of the Night.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilievsky stopped 29 shots on Monday night but perhaps none were better than this pad save to rob Tomas Tatar right on the door step.

Vasilevskiy had a slow start to the season but has been outstanding in his past two games, stopping 57 out of 60 shots in the Lightning’s wins over the St. Louis Blues and Red Wings.

Factoid of the Night.

Justin Abdelkader scored on a penalty shot for the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night becoming the first Red Wings player to do that in nearly 10 years.

Ten years?! That seems like a heck of a long time between penalty shot goals for a team.

Misc.

Mike Green continued his incredible start to the season by scoring his first goal of the season for the Detroit Red Wings. He is now up to nine points in five games this season.

Steven Stamkos picked up a pair of assists in the win for the Lightning, giving him eight on the season. Once he starts scoring goals (he only has one so far) he is going to be a force. His absence a year ago was a big reason why the Lightning fell just short of the postseason. With him back healthy they now have two of the top offensive players in the league (Nikita Kucherov).

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of innovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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