PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Did the U.S. go too young on D?

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21, 22, 24 and 25.

Those aren’t lottery numbers — they’re the ages Justin Faulk, Cam Fowler, John Carlson/Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk will be when the U.S. opens the 2014 Winter Olympics against Slovakia.

Going so young on defense was one of the most surprising developments from USA Hockey’s roster announcement– well, aside from the “Bobby Ryan can’t spell intense” development — and remains a big question mark heading into Sochi. The U.S. completely overhauled its silver medal-winning blueline from Vancouver in 2010, returning just two defensemen (Brooks Orpik and Ryan Suter) while turning things over to the kiddie corps.

Veterans Orpik, Suter and Paul Martin (named to the ’10 squad, but missed to injury) are expected to lead, and with good reason. Faulk, Fowler, Carlson, McDonagh and Shattenkirk have never played in the Olympics before; Falk, Fowler and Shattenkirk have just 28 combined games of playoff experience.

“We have some leadership on the back end, we have some experience, we have guys that have been there before,” American head coach Dan Bylsma said, per the Canadian Press. “But we also have added some younger players. But I go back to being a team we think is going to be real sound defensively and real good defensively. With the young guys and the old guys we think we have that with that group.”

The U.S. braintrust — namely Bylsma and GM David Poile — have stressed speed, skating and puck movement as keys to their decisions. In selecting young defensemen they’ve done exactly that, eschewing the mold in Vancouver that relied more on physicality (Tim Gleason) and guys that weren’t so fleet of foot (Ryan Whitney).

But the change in approach isn’t without risks.

Four years ago, GM Brian Burke strategically tagged the U.S. as pre-tournament underdogs, saying “there’s not going to be a penny bet on this team.” That’s in stark contrast to this year’s club — “our goal is to go over there and win gold this time around,” Bylsma said — which puts an intense amount of pressure on first-time Olympians. What’s more, the contentious selection process has the youngsters under the microscope, as more seasoned veterans (and loyal international participants) like Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson were passed over.

Poile, though, insists he’s constructed the best blueline available:

On Fowler: “His game has grown in leaps and bounds. He’s been one of the best defencemen in the NHL this season.”

On Carlson: “This year he has transitioned from somewhat of a defensive defenseman to a two-way defenseman. He leads the NHL in shorthanded minutes [4:00 per game] with a team that’s pretty good in penalty killing and his offensive game has gone way up.”

On Faulk: “He certainly has his star rising. We like Justin’s game.”

It’ll be very interesting to see if this ballyhooed young group can live up to its potential while handling the pressure. Remember, one of the best Americans in Vancouver was 36-year-old Brian Rafalski, the team’s oldest player. He won best defenseman, made the tournament all-star team and skated with Suter as the team’s top defensive pair.

With Rafalski now gone, Suter looks to be the guy — which could be why Poile was comfortable surrounding Suter with so many young defensemen. At the end of the day, the American blueline sounds like it’ll rely on its star power to get through.

“I think Ryan’s coming-out party was in Vancouver, when he and Rafalski were our best defense pair,” Poile said. “We here in Nashville knew all along what kind of player Ryan was, but his career really took off from that point.

“He’s going to be counted on to anchor or defense, play big minutes, maybe with multiple partners, to make big contributions — which is nothing new with him.”

The Buzzer: Thornton moves up all-time scoring list; Kings snap six-game losing skid

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Players of the Night:

Brian Elliott looked solid in Philadelphia’s overtime win over the Capitals, as he turned aside 27 of 28 shots. This was the first time in eight games that the Flyers netminder allowed fewer than three goals in a game, but he’s still been victorious in three of his last four outings.

• How about that goalie duel between Connor Hellebuyck and Anders Nilsson. The Jets won the game, but both goaltenders were fantastic during this all-Canadian matchup.

• Sticking with the goalie theme, Aaron Dell was fantastic between the pipes for in San Jose’s win against Anaheim. Even when starter Martin Jones comes back from a lower-body injury, Dell should continue to be a factor for the Sharks.

• Sharks forward Mikkel Boedker had a solid night at the office, as he racked up two goals and an assist against the Ducks. That’s impressive considering he only had 12 points on the season coming into tonight’s action.

• The Kings’ power play isn’t a player, but it came to play tonight against the Rangers. Los Angeles got three goals on the man-advantage from Jake Muzzin, Michael Amadio and Tanner Pearson. Those three power play markers helped them snap their six-game losing skid.

Highlights:

Poor Markus Granlund never saw Hellebuyck coming:

That’s a pretty sweet shot from Kevin Labanc:

Here are two pretty sweet backhand passes leading up to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare‘s goal:

Alex Ovechkin scored a power play from his favorite spot on the ice:

Non-called Penalty of the Night:

That’s a pretty dangerous hit by Dmitry Orlov on Claude Giroux. No boarding call?

Factoids:

That’s a lot of power play goals for Ovechkin:

Joe Thornton keeps movin’ on up:

The Rangers have received some balanced scoring this season:

The Golden Knights simply can’t be stopped. What a season they’re having:

Scores:

Flyers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

Golden Knights 5, Hurricanes 1

Jets 1, Canucks 0

Sharks 6, Ducks 2

Kings 4, Rangers 2

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Fight Video: Kempe comes to Lewis’ defense by dropping gloves with Smith

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It’s not every day that you see Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe drop the gloves, but he did so against the Rangers tonight.

Things got chippy at the end of the first period between the Rangers and Kings. As both teams were mixing it up, New York’s Brendan Smith shoved Trevor Lewis from behind. Kempe wasn’t impressed with Smith’s move, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Here’s Smith’s shove on Lewis:

And this is the fight between Smith and Kempe:

(h/t: hayyyshayyy on Twitter)

As you can tell from the above video, Smith is the more experienced fighter. Also, Kempe has great hair, but it’s clearly not practical when dropping the gloves.

Thanks to Smith, the Kings got a power play to start the second period. Defenseman Jake Muzzin cashed in on the man-advantage to cut Los Angeles’ deficit to 2-1.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Expansion Golden Knights are officially in first place (Update)

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Just like we all predicted in September, the Vegas Golden Knights are sitting in first place in the NHL.

The Golden Knights’ 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes allowed them to collect their 65th and 66th points of the season, which moved them one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning for top spot in the league (both teams have played 46 games).

PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote a terrific piece about Golden Knights’ amazing first season to date.

It’s only fitting that Vegas got a good amount of production from some of their most pleasant surprises tonight. Jonathan Marchessault, Colin Miller and James Neal also found the back of the net.

As you’d expect, the Golden Knights’ Twitter account is having fun marking this occasion.

“Maybe a little unexpected, right?,” Marc-Andre Fleury said of his team’s success, per NHL.com. “It’s been a lot of fun. We started this team from scratch and chemistry was built very quick between us. Every night, all the guys bring their best effort. I’m proud of our team to be where we’re at right now.”

We’ve had over three months to come to grips with everything the Golden Knights have done, but it’s still amazing to see how some of the players on their roster have produced during Vegas’ inaugural season.

 

43 points in 43 games for Marchessault? 25 goals at the midway point of the season for William Karlsson? Nobody saw those things coming. What makes this even more impressive is that they’ve had to roll four goalies (Fleury, Oscar Dansk, Malcolm Subban and Maxime Lagace).

“Early on in the year, I think we surprised some teams. Now I think every team will get up to play us. It’s just something that will be another test for this group,” Miller told NHL.com.

Now the question is, how far can this pesky expansion team go?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Struggling Lightning lose Ondrej Palat for indefinite period of time

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been going through a difficult stretch lately and things got a lot more difficult on Sunday. The team announced that Ondrej Palat is out indefinitely after taking a spear from Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon on Saturday night.

The Bolts, who are on an eight-game road trip, have confirmed that Palat will head back to Tampa on Monday for further testing. He’s accumulated eight goals and 30 points in 46 games this season.

Although the video isn’t the clearest, this is the play that led to the injury:

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Lightning have been slumping badly of late. They’ve dropped three games in a row to Calgary, Vegas and Minnesota.

Their once giant lead atop the Atlantic Division has dwindled to three points over the Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand.

“We’re just out of synch, it’s unreal,” head coach Jon Cooper said, per The Tampa Times. “The guys didn’t forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half. We’re just out of synch. One guy zigs, the other guy zags. It’s crazy that in the last week and a half, we kind of lost our swag.”

The Bolts will continue their road trip in Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia before the All-Star break. On top of their difficult schedule, they’ll also be without number one defenseman Victor Hedman for the next few weeks.

Their spot in the playoffs isn’t in any danger, but the number one seed in the league (Vegas is coming in a hurry) and top spot in the division is in doubt.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.