ZdenoChara

Olympic playoff preview: Czechs and Slovaks put star power on display

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The Game: No. 7 Czech Republic vs. No. 10 Slovakia. Tuesday, 12 p.m. ET at Shayba Arena.

How they got here: The Czechs had a dysfunctional opening round, winning just one in three tries amidst questionable player selection (see here), illness (see here and here) and a curious distribution of ice time (see here). But for as dysfunctional as the Czechs were, the Slovaks were equally disappointing — hammered 7-1 by the U.S. in the opener, then stunned by minnows Slovenia in their second game. Slovakia did manage to save face with a good effort against Russia in the finale, losing 1-0 in a shootout.

Who’s hot: Marek Zidlicky has been a major bright spot for the Czechs. He’s playing staggering minutes (26:28 TOI per game) and leads the team in points, with three. Zidlicky also shares the team goalscoring lead with Jaromir Jagr (two).

For the Slovaks, it’s goalie Jan Laco. Laco’s story is pretty neat — he came into the tournament as Slovakia’s No. 3 netminder, behind St. Louis’ Jaroslav Halak and Montreal’s Peter Budaj. But after Halak and Budaj (Halak especially) played poorly in the opening two games, head coach Vladimir Vujtek made the bold decision to play Laco, who didn’t even dress in the first two contests, against Russia in the final group affair.

Laco responded by stopping all 36 shots faced in regulation and overtime, before losing in the shootout. He’ll reportedly start against the Czechs.

Who’s not: Take your pick, really. There are a number of underachievers from both sides, but we’ll focus on a pair of forwards. For the Slovaks, Marian Hossa has worked extremely hard but has no goals and just one assist to show for it. For the Czechs, former 35-goal man Milan Michalek has been invisible, going pointless over three games while averaging a little over 12 minutes a night.

X-Factor: Star power. Mentioned in the headline, but it bears repeating — of the four opening playoff games, Czech Republic-Slovakia boasts significantly more NHLers that the rest, with some true stars in play. This is a key factor in single elimination games. The Slovaks haven’t been good defensively this tournament, but couldn’t that change in one night by, say, playing Chara close to 30 minutes?

Some tough decisions await the Blues

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Yet again, the St. Louis Blues failed to achieve their ultimate goal.

And boy does it hurt right now.

“We’re all hurting,” coach Ken Hitchcock said last night after getting eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final.

“You don’t want this to be our best opportunity. You want this to be a building block. In this game, in this era, in this cap world, you don’t know where you’re going to be a year from now.”

Indeed, GM Doug Armstrong has some tough decisions to make this offseason.

At the top of the list is whether to bring Hitchcock back. Yes, the Blues did better than 26 other teams, and yes, they finally got past the first round. Still, there are people who believe this will be it for the head coach, that a new voice could help. Overall, Hitchcock has done a great job in St. Louis. But then, so did Todd McLellan in San Jose. Sometimes, change can be good.

Then there are the unrestricted free agents. Both captain David Backes and winger Troy Brouwer need new contracts. The former is 32, the latter 30. The former had seven goals in the playoffs, the latter eight. How much money will they want? How much term? The second question might be the most important.

On the back end, it’s Kevin Shattenkirk that will garner the most attention. He’s signed through next season before he can become an unrestricted free agent. Just 27 years old, and considering the demand for what he does, he’ll be very expensive to keep. And with the emergence of Colton Parayko, trading Shattenkirk could probably be justified, especially if the return is good. A team like the Boston Bruins might be willing to pay up.

Right now, the pain is still fresh for the Blues.

“It’s so hard to win in the league right now,” said Hitchcock. “It’s so hard to win a series. So hard to just get in the playoffs. When you get this far, you get this close, you think you got the opportunity.”

The challenge for Armstrong will be to give his team another opportunity next season. And with the draft less than a month away, all these tough decisions will need to be made very soon.

Goals of the Week get tougher as Cup Final approaches

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The Stanley Cup Final is almost upon us and picking the very best Goals of the Week is a tough task. See how we did on this edition!

Just for Men: Mike Commodore

RALEIGH, NC - JUNE 14:  Mike Commodore #22 of the Carolina Hurricanes warms up before game five of the 2006 NHL Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers on June 14, 2006 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Getty
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Maybe one would argue that time hasn’t been kind to the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes (at least compared to the pedigree of other winners), but Mike Commodore’s incredible red afro and beard rank as one of hockey’s most timeless combinations.

Seriously, just take a step back from your monitor* and bask in the splendor of that carrot-topped Commodore.

Even then-President George W. Bush remarked on Commodore’s bushy hair and beard (or its tragic absence) when the Canes visited the White House:

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all for coming. Have a seat. It’s a pretty big deal for a guy that doesn’t know how to ice skate — (laughter) — to welcome the Carolina Hurricanes to the White House. We appreciate you coming. You know, I’m not sure what is prettier, the Stanley Cup, or Mike Commodore’s hair. (Laughter.) A little disappointed you got a haircut. (Laughter.) But, welcome.

Good stuff.

And it really is kind of disappointing any time you see Commodore relatively clean-shaven. It’s like Superman without a big “S” on his chest or Metallica with short hair or any number of not-quite-right sights.

* – If you’re doing the Rumsfeld-style “standing at your desk” thing then … kneel for a second maybe?

Here’s your Stanley Cup playoffs schedule for tonight

Stanley Cup
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There’s nothing better than a Game 7, especially when a spot in the Stanley Cup Final is up for grabs. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins will battle in a do-or-die game for the right to play the San Jose Sharks with Lord Stanley on the line. You can watch the game via the NBC Sports Group’s television and digital platforms.

Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh (8:00 p.m. ET)

The television broadcast of Game 7 will be on NBCSN. To stream the game using the Live Extra app, click here.

Here’s some reading material to get you ready for this one:

Penguins, Lightning prepare for ‘roller coaster’ Game 7

Penguins force Game 7 after holding off Lightning rally

Lightning lament Game 6 effort, Cooper doesn’t blame disallowed goal