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.

PHT Morning Skate: Four things the Pens need to do to eliminate the Sens

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–Pittsburgh Tribune writer Jonathan Bombulie breaks down the four things the Penguins need to do to close out the Ottawa Senators in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. It starts with being ready to play, being desperate, scoring first and showing Ottawa some respect. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

–A few weeks after they were bounced from the playoffs, the Sharks are still deciding if they should bring back Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. If anything, it sounds like there’s a good chance they chose to keep Thornton over Marleau at this point. (CSN Bay Area)

–The city of Nashville has come a long way as a hockey market. They went from having fans that needed “Hockey 101” lessons to now being fully invested in their team. There were some lean years in Nashville, but they’ve seen the benefits of education young fans over the years. (New York Times)

–The Nashville Predators locked up their first berth in the Stanley Cup Final by beating the Ducks 6-3 on Monday night. Colton Sissons, who was the unlikely hero in Game 6, scored a hat trick. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–The Philadelphia Flyers own the second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, and there’s at least a chance that Nolan Patrick could be available at that spot. Despite dealing with some pretty significant injuries over the last year, Patrick believes he’s capable of staying healthy and playing in the NHL next season. Oh, and by the way, Patrick doesn’t like pizza, but he loves cheesesteaks. (Courier-Post)

–The Hockey News recounts the story of the old Cleveland Barons, who found out they were entering the NHL just three months before the start of the 1976-77 season. As you can imagine, those are some difficult circumstances, and problems arose from the beginning. “I couldn’t even give tickets away. I asked my mailman if he wanted tickets, and he said, ‘I’ve got bowling tonight,'” said former captain Al McAdam. (The Hockey News)

–Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Taylor Lewan was at the Preds-Ducks game last night, and yup, he threw a catfish on the ice after the Predators won the game. Here’s the visual evidence:

 

Video: Johansen, Fisher join in Predators’ conference title celebration

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After reaching their first ever Western Conference Final, the Nashville Predators topped that in a big way, advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

There were a lot of firsts and rarities along the way.

In ousting the Anaheim Ducks with a 6-3 victory in Game 6, GM David Poile’s team advanced to the championship round for the first time in his lengthy time as an executive.

Peter Laviolette also became the fourth coach in NHL history to bring three different teams to a Stanley Cup Final. The Predators are also the first 16th seed to make it this far.

Yep, that’s a long list of milestones (and not a comprehensive one). And, to think, the Predators haven’t even been on the brink of elimination during the postseason yet.

It’s special stuff, so don’t be surprised by the boisterous celebration you can see in the video above this post’s headline.

P.K. Subban: No city in the NHL ‘has anything on Nashville’

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If there’s one thing we can agree upon about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s that these months have really cemented just how hockey-mad Nashville has become for its Predators.

(Yes, you can call it “Smashville” if you’d like.)

The scene at Bridgestone Arena was as boisterous as ever in the Predators’ 6-3 Game 6 win against the Anaheim Ducks, with legions of fans packing and surrounding the building.

Sights like these have becoming resoundingly normal for a hockey market that was once questioned by media and other fan bases:

Yeah, wow.

As the Predators advanced to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final, plenty of people were making jokes at the expense of the Montreal Canadiens for trading P.K. Subban. Of course, Subban wouldn’t take a shot at the Habs during such a great moment, but his praise for puck-nutty Predators fans says a lot in itself.

“I played in an A+ market my whole career,” Subban said, via Jeremy K. Gover of the Nashville Predators Radio Network. “There’s not a city in the league that has anything on Nashville.”

Whether their opponent is the Pittsburgh Penguins or Ottawa Senators, we already know that Nashville will begin the Stanley Cup Final on the road. That’s OK … Predators fans might need some time to get their voices back and recover from celebrating, so waiting until Games 3 and 4 might be a blessing in disguise.

Ducks’ Cogliano just doesn’t think Predators were the better team

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The Anaheim Ducks battled their way to Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, but Colton Sissons and the Nashville Predators ended their season on Monday.

The Ducks are processing that disappointment – being just two wins away from a trip to the championship round – and some of their reactions might spark a little controversy.

Specifically, it sounds a bit like Bruce Boudreau believing that his Minnesota Wild were superior to the St. Louis Blues despite falling in that series.

Andrew Cogliano, it must be noted, was spurned by Pekka Rinne on some early chances in Game 6. He likely feels as frustrated as any Ducks player right now.

Sisson’s hat-trick goal, making it 4-3 before two empty-netters cemented the 6-3 finish, was the dagger that finally put the hard-working Ducks down.

One can understand some of those feelings from Anaheim, especially considering the frustration of a) getting over Jonathan Bernier‘s early struggles to make a very real game of this and b) occasionally carrying the play in a dramatic way, including in Game 6.

Still, the Predators got the right combination of great stretches of play from Rinne and strong work from the expected and the unexpected, such as Sissons.

For an aging star like Ryan Getzlaf – a player who produced some of his best work late in the season and during the playoffs – you have to wonder how many chances remain.