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

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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.

Flames sign free agent defenseman Josh Healey

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The Calgary Flames announced on Saturday that they have signed undrafted free agent defenseman Josh Healey to a two-year entry level contract. He will join the Stockton Heat of the AHL for the remainder of this season on an Amateur Tryout contract before his entry level deal begins next season.

Healey, 22, has spent the past four seasons playing for Ohio State and has developed a reputation for being one of the biggest hitters and most physical players at the NCAA level.

“Hits too hard for college,” is how one NHL scout described his play back in February.

That style of play has resulted in him getting himself into hot some water in the form of several ejections and suspensions over the past two seasons.

Along with his willingness to play a physical game, Healey’s offensive game took off a bit during his junior and senior seasons, including the 2016-17 season when he finished as the top scoring defenseman on the Buckeyes with 25 points (four goals, 21 assists) in 35 games.

In 133 games over four years at Ohio State he has accumulated 212 penalty minutes, leading the team by a pretty wide margin the past two years.

Panthers coach Tom Rowe wishes he didn’t play Aaron Ekblad this week

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A miserable season for the Florida Panthers got a little bit worse earlier this month when defenseman Aaron Ekblad was sidelined with another concussion on what coach and general manager Tom Rowe called “a real cheap shot from behind.”

After missing a few games, he was cleared to play by the team’s medical staff and returned to the lineup on Tuesday, 10 days after the injury, and played 18 minutes in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Based on what happened in the aftermath of that game, it seems pretty obvious he may not have been completely ready to return to the ice.

Ekblad will not play in Saturday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks and will not accompany the team on its upcoming road trip after he complained of a sore neck following Tuesday’s game. He was also dealing with headaches on Friday that were attributed to a neck injury and not the concussion.

On Saturday, Rowe was asked if he regretted playing Ekblad earlier this week and he was quite honest in his assessment.

“I’m not going to lie, I wish we didn’t,” Said Rowe, via George Richards of the Miami Herald. “That’s on me. The doctors cleared him, our medical staff cleared him but I had some reservations and I wish I stayed with my gut. That’s no one’s fault but my own.

Ekblad wanted to play in Tuesday’s game but Rowe insisted he should have used his experience to hold his top defenseman out of the lineup.

“I’ve have a lot more experience in this business than he does,” said Rowe, again via the Herald. “I have had a ton of experience with those types of injuries. I usually give those guys two or three days of practice and I wish I had done that. It’s no one’s fault but my own.”

Ekblad has had some significant head and neck injuries over the past couple of years. This is the second time in the past two seasons he has missed time due to a concussion, and he was also sent home from the World Cup of Hockey earlier this year with what was said to be “whiplash.”

The 21-year-old Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, has 10 goals and 11 assists in 68 games for the Panthers this season. With only four games remaining following the team’s upcoming four-game road trip it is not out of the question to think that Ekblad’s season could be over.

The Panthers are only 4-10-1 in their past 15 games and have pretty  much fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Ryan O’Reilly comments on Sidney Crosby spearing incident: ‘It happens’

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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has made some headlines this week for a couple of stick infractions that were overlooked by the on-ice officials during his games.

They were not overlooked by everybody else.

On Thursday, he caught Marc Methot with a slash to the hand that ended up busting the defenseman’s finger on a play that made Senators owner Eugene Melnyk go berserk on Ottawa radio the next day. On its own it would have been an incident that received a ton of attention, if for no other reason than the gruesome image of Methot’s finger dangling around. But what added to it was the fact that two days before that incident there was the spearing incident involving Buffalo Sabres forward Ryan O'Reilly that you see in the video above.

On Saturday, O’Reilly was asked for his thoughts on the play after everything that has happened with Crosby over the past couple of games.  He does not seem to have any hard feelings regarding the play, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

“It was a weird thing,” said O’Reilly. “You know, it happens. I didn’t expect it and he apologized after the play and it was understood. It just threw me off. I wasn’t expecting anything and then something happens, but he’s a good guy and he is just playing hard and he takes a beating every night too so it happens.”

He was then asked if he knew who initially hit him, and O’Reilly said he did not until Crosby apologized later in the game.

“No, I didn’t,” said O’Reilly. I was watching the puck and the next thing I know I had a stick right to the crotch and it threw me off for sure. I got up slowly and turned around to see who it was, and then off the won faceoff he comes up as we’re skating down the ice and says, ‘yeah, sorry about that, I was kind of going for your stick.’ I go, ‘meh, it happens, I guess. Would’ve been nice to have a penalty, but it happens.”

Crosby was not penalized for either play and received no supplemental discipline from the league. The latter part is not a surprise, and it is not because of some sort of preferential treatment from the league. Since the NHL’s department of player safety has been put into place it has never suspended a player for spearing (it has fined seven players) and suspended only two players for slashing (it has fined six).

Bruins will not have Tuukka Rask for massive game against Islanders tonight

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Massive game in Brooklyn on Saturday night when the New York Islanders will be hosting the Boston Bruins in a key game in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

The day is already off to a bad start for the Bruins, losers of four in a row, when coach Bruce Cassidy announced that starting goaltender Tuukka Rask did not make the trip with the team and will not be available for the game. Anthon Khudobin will get the start in his place, while Zane McIntyre has been recalled from the American Hockey League on an emergency basis.

Cassidy said that Rask is dealing with a lower body injury and is considered day-to-day.

Rask did not practice with the team on Friday.

It is a massive game as both teams enter the night tied in the standings with 82 points. But because the Islanders have played one fewer game, they currently occupy the second wild card spot. They are both just one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in what is now pretty much a three-team race for that spot. It is the last meeting of the season between the two teams (Boston does play Tampa Bay once more).

Overall it has been another frustrating season for Rask, whose .910 save percentage is currently the worst of his career. He has really struggled during the Bruins’ current four-game losing streak, giving up 15 goals during that stretch.

Khudobin, meanwhile, has been on a bit of a roll for the Bruins in his recent starts following a terrible start to the season. He has won each of his past four starts, allowing just eight goals.

The Islanders are coming off of a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh on Friday night against the Penguins with Jaroslav Halak making his return to the team and picking up the win.