Sochi Olympics Ice Hockey Men

Sizing up the Big Four, as ‘do or die time’ begins

32 Comments

No disrespect to the other eight teams, all of which are still alive in the Olympic tournament. But let’s face it, Slovenia, Austria, Norway, and Latvia aren’t winning this thing, and Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and even Finland would be a surprise if they did. After the preliminary round, one of the Big Four is still expected to take gold here in Sochi, so let’s size each of them up:

United States: The most impressive team so far. Dominated Slovakia and Slovenia, and beat Russia in a shootout. “We get a couple of days off to rest up, use it to our advantage and try to get better every day,” said forward Patrick Kane. “But it’s do or die time now. This is where the fun begins.” Indeed, everything the U.S. has done will be forgotten if it lets up in the quarterfinals, where it will face the winner of the Slovakia-Czech Republic qualification contest. Assuming no letup, its next opponent would likely be Canada, with either Russia, Sweden or Finland in the gold-medal game. Not an easy path, to say the least. Phil Kessel has been the star for the Americans, leading the tourney with seven points (four goals and three assists) while playing on a line with regular Toronto linemate James van Riemsdyk and San Jose’s Joe Pavelski. Kane, however, has been less productive, and was a bit down on himself following the Slovenia win. The challenge for the U.S. will be to avoid what happened to the Swedes in 2010, when they went undefeated through the prelims only to lose to Slovakia in the quarters. Speaking of…

Sweden: Usually no big fans of the Finns, the Swedes owe their neighbors for taking Canada to overtime on Sunday, a result that gave the Tre Kronor the top seed out of the prelims. A relatively easy quarterfinal against either Austria or Slovenia now awaits, and if everything goes well, Russia or Finland next and the U.S. or Canada in the gold-medal game. One big problem: despite the fact they haven’t lost yet, the Swedes really haven’t been very good. Since losing Henrik “everything” Zetterberg, they needed Henrik Lundqvist to be brilliant in the early part of the Swiss game — “They were all over us the first 10 minutes,” he said — and they had to come from behind to beat Latvia after trailing 2-1. “Improvements need to be made,” said Lundqvist. “We need to play a lot smarter than we did [versus Latvia].”

Canada: Mike Babcock thinks the media is too hard on his team, and he has a point to an extent. Team Canada has been outstanding defensively and possession-wise, and despite only beating Finland 2-1 in overtime, Babcock had the chances at 16-5 for the red and white. “Our next game is going to be just like [the Finland game],” he said Monday. “The best thing for us is what happened yesterday; our players know this is what we’re in for. That’s what the game is. If we think we’re getting seven, we’re watching the wrong sport. It’s gonna be 2-1.” He may be right, because Canada is likely to play Switzerland next, and the Swiss have only surrendered one goal all tournament. Still, it’s not unfair to question why Canada, which boasts five of the top 10 scorers in the NHL this season, has only managed five goals in three games from its forwards. Is it a matter of bad luck (i.e. just not finishing)? Is it the way they’re being defended? Is it the way the referees are calling (or not calling) it? Or is it simply that the forwards, featuring the one and only Sidney Crosby, just aren’t clicking the way they should be? In 2010, the Canadians had an uneven preliminary round, then won four straight to take gold. They’ll only have to win three in 2014, with a probable semifinal versus the Americans, and a gold-medal game against Russia, Sweden, or Finland.

Russia: The most compelling story, so we saved it for last. Like the host Canadians in 2010, the 2014 hosts didn’t advance directly to the quarterfinals. As such, they’ll have to play Norway Tuesday for a spot against the Finns in the quarters. Beat Norway and Finland and it’s almost certainly Sweden in the semis, with likely the United States or Canada in the gold-medal game. And how amazing would either of those match-ups be? First things first though. Oddly enough, the Russians’ most impressive performance of the prelims was probably the only one they lost, on Saturday to T.J. Oshie and company. A late disallowed goal, which would’ve counted in the NHL, left many of their fans feeling robbed; however, that won’t be the difference between winning gold and a nation erupting in celebration, or not. What might be the difference is special teams. “We not score on the power play and we had many power plays,” said Pavel Datsyuk after Sunday’s 1-0 defeat of Slovakia in a shootout. “We need to work on it more.” On paper, the Russians’ power play — featuring the likes of Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Andrei Markov — couldn’t look much more imposing. But in the first three games, it’s only scored twice in almost 24 minutes with the man advantage.

The Ducks look pretty mighty right now after six consecutive wins

Anaheim Ducks v Los Angeles Kings
Getty Images
1 Comment

In what should be a disturbing trend for every other team in the Pacific Division, the Anaheim Ducks have now won six consecutive games, and eight of their last 10.

After dominating the shot clock for pretty much all of Friday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, the Ducks completely took over on the scoreboard in the third period. It seemed like only a matter of time before a breakthrough would occur.

Just 24 hours after beating the L.A. Kings, the Ducks earned a 5-2 victory over the Coyotes.

Ryan Kesler has eight points in his last six games. Corey Perry has seven points in his last six games. Patrick Maroon, who had only eight points all season prior to Friday, had a three-point night versus Arizona.

Again. Bad news for every other team in the Pacific.

The Ducks now have a three-point lead over the Coyotes for third place in the division. They’re one point back of second-place San Jose and eight back of division-leading L.A.

As for everyone else, more specifically the Canucks, Flames and Oilers, well it might be time to start focusing more on the upcoming trade deadline and, beyond that, the draft.

The Ducks had a terrible start to this season, one that started with so much hype about a team seen as an immediate Stanley Cup contender for 2015-16.

Count Corey Perry as one who believes those early season struggles could pay off at playoff time.

And remember all of that talk in October about Bruce Boudreau perhaps at the end of his days as coach of the Ducks?

At the end of October, GM Bob Murray vowed to be patient despite such a poor start just a few months after being one win away from the Stanley Cup Final last June.

There is still plenty of hockey remaining in the regular season. The Ducks have 32 games remaining on their schedule. But it appears that patience Murray showed in October is paying off.

Jets can’t complete the comeback after miserable start against Hurricanes

Colorado Avalanche v Winnipeg Jets
Getty Images
1 Comment

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) Phillip Di Giuseppe, Andrej Nestrasil, Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk scored in the first period, and the Carolina Hurricanes held on for a 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night.

The Hurricanes scored four times on their first nine shots, taking a 4-0 lead just 10:04 into the game. Nestrasil added another goal in the third period, and Cam Ward made 33 saves. Staal and Joakim Nordstrom each had a pair of assists.

Alexander Burmistrov, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler scored for Winnipeg.

Jets rookie Connor Hellebuyck allowed three goals while facing only six shots before being replaced by Michael Hutchinson after Staal’s power-play goal just 4:33 in. Hutchinson, who hadn’t played since a 4-1 loss in Anaheim on Jan. 3, finished with 21 saves.

The loss wrapped up Winnipeg’s season-high six-game homestand, which included just one victory.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 9.17.42 PM

Carolina’s first goal came after the Jets turned over the puck and Di Giuseppe scored on a sharp-angled shot at 1:43.

Hellebuyck then kicked out a bad rebound and Nestrasil tallied his 16th goal of the season in his 100th NHL game from almost the same angle at 3:05.

With Byfuglien in the penalty box for delay of game, Staal’s shot beat Hellebuyck, ending the young goalie’s night.

Faulk made it 4-0 when his team’s third shot at Hutchinson went between his pads at 10:04.

The Jets came out at a faster, more aggressive pace to start the second period and it paid off with 1:25 remaining.

Andrew Copp and Chris Thorburn were battling a pair of Hurricanes behind the net when Thorburn poked the puck out front as he was falling and Burmistrov got his sixth goal of the season.

Ladd, who hit the post late in the second period, banged home a rebound with Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner off for hooking at 9:07 of the third.

Byfuglien one-timed a pass from Nikolaj Ehlers that Wheeler deflected to make it 4-3 with 6:12 remaining.

Nestrasil sealed the win with his second goal at 18:40.

NOTES: Ehlers’ assist extended his point streak to six games, with four goals and four assists. … Winnipeg heads out for a two-game road trip starting in Colorado on Saturday. Carolina visits Montreal on Sunday.

Video: Zatkoff robs Condra with sprawling paddle save

Leave a comment

All Erik Condra had to do was lift the puck off the ice.

He didn’t, and as a result, he was robbed by sprawled out Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who made a spectacular desperation save with the paddle of his stick on the Lightning forward.

The save occurred just past the midway point of the third period. That kept the Penguins in the game, down by a goal at the time.

However, the Penguins couldn’t get the equalizer. The result was a 6-3 loss for Pittsburgh, as Tampa Bay scored twice later in the period.

Defending Eastern Conference champion Bolts continue hot streak

508639400
Getty Images
3 Comments

Remember those distractions the Tampa Bay Lightning had to endure?

— The future of captain Steven Stamkos, who is a pending unrestricted free agent and whose contract situation has been an ongoing discussion point for months now.

Jonathan Drouin‘s camp publicly requesting a trade, then having the 20-year-old forward sent to the minors and then suspended by Tampa Bay, etc.

Well, through it all, the defending Eastern Conference champions have emerged and are now one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League . Since the start of January, the Bolts have lost twice. In 13 games.

They continued their hot streak Friday, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins — another of those teams on an impressive streak — by a final score of 6-3, with Tyler Johnson leading the way with three points. He was one of six Tampa Bay players to record a multi-point night.

Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots.

Tampa Bay is now five points behind the Florida Panthers for first in the Atlantic Division.

For the Penguins, the loss keeps them on the outside of the playoff bubble for now. They remain one point back of New Jersey for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

Sidney Crosby extended his point streak to nine games. He also has goals in five straight and is one point shy of 900 for his career.