Sochi Olympics Ice Hockey Men

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


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.

Bernier (upper-body injury) gives way to Gibson in Ducks net

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 01:  Goaltender Jonathan Bernier #1 of the Anaheim Ducks during the preseason NHL game against Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on October 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Ducks 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson began Tuesday’s game on the bench, but was forced into action to begin the second period against the San Jose Sharks.

Jonathan Bernier, who got the start, left the game with an upper-body injury and was doubtful to return, the Ducks stated on Twitter.

Bernier has played in only one other game for Anaheim so far, making 42 saves on 45 shots in a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 15.

‘Dig in there with the rest of the guys,’ says Babcock after leaving Andersen in against Bolts

OTTAWA, ON - OCTOBER 12: In his first game as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen #31 puts his mask on against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on October 12, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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Frederik Andersen‘s difficult start to the season continues.

After an interesting exchange when questioned about his goaltender prior to Tuesday’s game against the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning and some guy named Steven Stamkos, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was once again forced to answer inquiries about the play of Andersen, who allowed seven goals on just 24 shots.

Andersen stayed in the crease for the entire game, as the Leafs lost 7-3. He certainly didn’t get much help in the defensive end from his teammates in front of him.

Stamkos started the scoring for Tampa Bay, and continued it with a rocket one-timer past Andersen, before finishing with a four-point night.

But in Toronto, the conversation about the amazing play of rookies like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner seems to have shifted to the play of their goalie, acquired in a blockbuster deal with Anaheim, in which Toronto parted ways with a first- and second-round pick to make it happen. The Leafs then signed him to a five-year, $25 million deal.

Playing on a new team in a hockey-crazed market has likely been an adjustment. His season also started with an injury in Olympic qualifying.

Following the loss Tuesday, Babcock explained his reasoning for leaving Andersen in net for all seven Tampa Bay goals, two of which came late in the third period.

“I want him to play. He’s my guy. I want him to play,” said Babcock, as per Jonas Siegel of The Canadian Press. “So I could pull him and then say, ‘Okay I showed you!’ But what did I show him? To me, dig in there with the rest of the guys, make the next save and give us a chance to come back and win the game. You can’t do that sitting on the bench.”

The Maple Leafs face the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Florida’s goalie Roberto Luongo knows all-too-well about the pressures that come with playing the position in a Canadian market.

It is early in Andersen’s Toronto tenure.

But Babcock will likely be facing a similar line of questioning until his goalie turns it around.

Video: Flyers complete the comeback, defeat Sabres in the shootout

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The rookie got it started. The stars finished it.

The Philadelphia Flyers looked like they were headed for a second straight loss, down three goals to the Buffalo Sabres on home ice entering the third period of Tuesday’s game.

Matt Moulson had a pair of goals for Buffalo, both on the power play. He capitalized six seconds after Claude Giroux was called for hitting Zemgus Girgensons from behind the into the boards.

But the Flyers, who played Monday in Montreal, came roaring back in the third period.

Travis Konecny began the comeback, scoring his first career NHL goal. He had five assists coming into this game, but finally buried his first goal on a nifty deflection in front. The milestone moment got the Flyers on the board.

Late third-period power play goals from Brayden Schenn and Mark Streit just 1:05 apart sent this game to overtime, as Philly was able to capitalize on a pair of late Buffalo penalties.

Giroux and Jakub Voracek scored in the shootout to complete the comeback and give Philadelphia a 4-3 victory.

Meanwhile, the Sabres, without Jack Eichel and Evander Kane, are still searching for their second win of the season.

Crosby returns, and so does Penguins’ balanced attack in win

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14: Sidney Crosby #87 and Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skate against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on November 14, 2014 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — With Sidney Crosby back in the lineup for the first time this season on Tuesday night the Pittsburgh Penguins roster is starting to resemble the one that lifted the Stanley Cup four months ago.

About half way through their 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers, they finally started to look like that team on the ice, too.

Entering the game having lost three out of four (while looking quite bad and being outscored 15-7 in the process) it looked like that early season slump was going to continue on Tuesday when they faced a 2-0 deficit midway through the second period.

They looked sluggish. They couldn’t stay out of the penalty box. The Panthers were completely shutting the game down and had just put on a penalty killing clinic where they played a 40-second game of keep-away, sparking a chorus of boos from the home crowd.

And then Sidney Crosby showed up.

It was at that point that Crosby found himself wide open in the middle of the ice to accept a pass from Evgeni Malkin and rip it past Panthers goalie Jamies Reimer for his first goal of the year.

In the end, it was a typical night at the office for Crosby.

He scored a goal, was a possession-driving machine (better than 63 percent of the shot attempts with Crosby on the ice belonged to Pittsburgh) and finished with a team-leading four shots on goal and seven attempts.

But for his good as he was in his 2016-17 debut, the biggest impact his return had is it made once again made their lineup a nightmare to match up against.

The Penguins’ calling card in last year’s playoffs was their ability to play fast, and their deep, balanced attack that had four lines that could all contribute. It was a matchup problem that nobody could really handle as they kept rotating lines with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel out one after another (not to mention a fourth line that has some scoring potential as well).

They obviously lose a lot of that advantage when Crosby is out of the lineup and teams only really have two big-time scoring threats to worry about.

On Tuesday, you could see it eventually start to become an issue for the Panthers as the Penguins received goals from three different lines in the win.

After Crosby scored to get the Penguins on the board, Carl Hagelin scored his first of the season to tie the game five minutes into the third period. Then fourth line provided the winner four minutes later when Eric Fehr finished a perfect pass from Tom Kuhnhackl.

Even with the win on Tuesday and a 4-2-1 start to the season it is still pretty clear the Penguins have some things to work through and are not quite where they need to be at this point. They have to cut down on the penalties. They really haven’t played a complete 60-minute game yet. The HBK line (which was broken up in the third period against Florida) has not really clicked the way it did in the playoffs. Kris Letang is still injured. But on Tuesday you started to see flashes of what made the team such a force in the playoffs.

With Crosby back on the ice and extending the lineup, you might start to see it happen a little more often.