Ice Hockey - Men's Semifinal - CAN vs SVK

PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Will goaltending cost Canada?

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There is always going to be second-guessing when it comes to Canada’s roster at the Sochi Olympics. So far, without a single game played, the question marks and doubts surrounding the goalies of the defending gold medalists are abundant.

The three tasked with tending the Canadian net: Roberto Luongo, believed to be the incumbent for the starter’s job after his gold medal victory in Vancouver four years ago, Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes.

None of them have been particularly impressive since the roster was announced on Jan. 7, which has prompted debate about who gets the starting duties. It’s believed the top choices are Luongo and Price, with Smith slotting into the No. 3 role. Luongo has allowed 26 goals in his last nine starts, but 14 goals in his last four. Price has given up 32 goals in 13 games, including a span in which he allowed four or more goals on five consecutive occasions. He’s playing well of late, with three straight wins, one shutout and three goals-allowed in his last three games. Smith has given up 33 goals in 14 games, but has also played better since the start of February, allowing five goals in his last four games, which includes a shutout.

The greatest concern appears to be Luongo.

“I don’t know. Obviously, we haven’t won, so it’s tough from that side of things,” Luongo said recently about the state of his game, as his Vancouver Canucks lost seven straight prior to the Olympic break.

Luongo has also dealt with two injuries – a groin ailment suffered prior to the holiday break and an ankle injury after a collision with the Kings’ Dustin Brown early three days before the Olympic announcement.

Last week, Canadian head coach Mike Babcock told Sportsnet he’ll split the goalie duties in the first two games of the competition, while the goalie who starts in the third game will probably be the starter for the remainder of the tournament. Babcock, the returning coach for Canada’s team, didn’t divulge any details on who his initial starter will be in the opening game, although he has an idea. Four years ago, Babcock started Martin Brodeur, but after a round-robin concluding loss to the U.S., the bench boss switched over to Luongo in the medal round. His decision proved successful.

It seems impossible that Babcock would base his decisions on the public comments of NHL players over the course of the last month. But 10 days after Canada’s roster announcement, Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, also on the Canadian squad, made a ringing endorsement for his NHL teammate Price.

“I know he’s my teammate and everything, but I’m hard pressed to find another goalie that’s better than him right now in the world,” said Subban.

As we can see, the debate involves many opinions, beyond just that of fans and pundits. Doubtful any of it will influence Babcock and his coaching staff. But there’s no denying that the individual performances of Luongo, Price and Smith over the last month have raised questions from the external sources about whether Canada can repeat as gold medal champions, and whether goaltending will help or hinder that team’s quest.

Recent comments from Babcock would suggest that Luongo will be his guy to start the tournament. He also gave Luongo a vote of confidence, too. Past history, like the 2010 Games and not the month of January, might have something to do with that.

“I’m not concerned,” Babcock said, as per TSN.

“I just think he’s a really good goalie. I’ve been with him a number of times and he’s always found a way to deliver. So I’m not concerned, no.”

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Matthews to sit out preseason tilt versus Sabres, as Maple Leafs give him ‘a little break’

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Auston Matthews poses for a portrait after being selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs play the Buffalo Sabres on Friday. But No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews won’t be in the lineup, according to multiple reports.

“Sooner or later, he’s going to get in, but not tonight,” said assistant coach Jim Hiller, as per the Toronto Sun.

“The lineups are day by day. They (World Cup players such as Matthews, Milan Michalek, Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk) went through a solid three weeks. It’s a little break, a little down time. There are tons of games coming. They’ll get a lot of ice time. They’ll get in shortly.”

(The report also notes that Matthews is not dealing with a health issue, which is obviously good news for the Leafs.)

On a night when the No. 2 overall selection Patrik Laine is slated to make his preseason debut for the Winnipeg Jets, fans wishing to see Matthews don a Maple Leafs jersey in his anticipated debut will have to wait.

Matthews played for Team North America at the World Cup held in Toronto. He had two goals and three points in three round robin games, but the young North American team was unable to advance to the semifinal round.

The Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens at home on Sunday.

McLellan: Maroon’s lower-body injury not considered serious

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It appears Patrick Maroon‘s injury from Wednesday’s preseason game against the Vancouver Canucks looked worse than it is.

The Edmonton Oilers forward was in obvious pain immediately after he went hard into the boards from an awkward hit delivered by James Sheppard just past the midway point of the third period. Maroon needed help to the bench and was unable to put much, if any, pressure on his left leg.

He left the game and didn’t return.

Good news, however, from the Oilers: Head coach Todd McLellan told reporters on Friday that the injury — lower body — is not serious, as per the team’s Twitter account.

According to Mark Spector of Sportsnet, the 28-year-old Maroon is expected to be ready for Edmonton’s season opener against the rival Calgary Flames on Oct. 12.

The Oilers acquired Maroon at last season’s trade deadline, a move that certainly added size and an element of grit to their group of forwards.

In 16 games with Edmonton, he scored eight goals and 14 points. In 56 games with Anaheim that same season, he registered only 13 points before the trade.

Patrik Laine to make highly anticipated preseason debut for Jets

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Patrik Laine gives an interview after being selected second by the Winnepeg Jets during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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Anticipation has been building since the Winnipeg Jets officially took Patrik Laine with the second overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft.

On Friday, Laine, the highly coveted Finnish forward, will make his preseason debut for the Jets when they play the Edmonton Oilers in Winnipeg, as the home fans get the chance to take in the occasion.

The Jets have done a nice job of amassing good young forwards in their organization. Laine, who has the gifts to be a prolific scorer in the NHL, is at the top of that prospect list.

Winnipeg’s roster tonight also includes forward prospects Kyle Connor, Nic Petan and Brandon Tanev, not to mention more NHL experienced forwards like Alex Burmistrov, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele.

Laine enters this season with high expectations placed on him from fans and media, after coming to the NHL following a standout career in Finland as a teenager. He’s aware of the expectations, but toned down the hype with the usual statements of just playing his game.

“Just be brave on the ice and show everybody I will earn my spot on the team,” he told reporters.

Laine has already seen game action this month. Not with the Jets, but with Finland’s entry at the World Cup of Hockey.

Following offseason knee surgery, Laine wasn’t happy with his performance in Finland’s first pre-tournament game. In three tournament games, Laine failed to register a point, despite a team-best 10 shots on goal, as Finland was quickly eliminated in the round robin.

Related:

Looking to make the leap: Patrik Laine

Murray: Ristolainen’s good-faith gesture unlikely to sway talks with Sabres

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 22: Rasmus Ristolainen #55 of the Buffalo Sabres makes a pass during the game against the Detroit Red Wings on January 22, 2016 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Brenner/Getty Images)
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray tells The Associated Press he doesn’t believe defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen‘s decision to join the team for practice without a contract will have any effect on thawing negotiations.

With a big laugh, Murray on Friday said the only way Ristolainen could speed up contract talks is if “he got all lovey-dovey” and elected to take the Sabres’ latest offer.

Ristolainen is a restricted free agent whose rights were retained by the Sabres in June. After representing Finland in the World Cup of Hockey, Ristolainen reported to the Sabres on Thursday in what was regarded as a sign of good faith.

Though he’s not allowed to play because he’s not under contract, Ristolainen is practicing with the team and also taking part in meetings. Ristolainen is not making himself available to reporters.

Murray says he didn’t see anything wrong with allowing Ristolainen to practice, saying he’d rather the player be in Buffalo than working out elsewhere.

Murray says the two sides are still negotiating.

In three seasons, Buffalo’s 2013 first-round draft pick has established himself as the Sabres’ top defenseman. Last year, Ristolainen led the team in averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time per game, and led Buffalo defensemen with 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists).