‘It is, for sure, the biggest thing we have ever done in the history of Slovenian hockey’

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The Slovenian Olympic hockey team is in the midst of something unforgettable.

Just ask the players.

With a country featuring just 148 registered senior players, seven rinks and only one professional team, Slovenia has done the unthinkable in Sochi by advancing to the tournament quarterfinals after Tuesday’s 4-0 playoff win over Austria. To a man, the Slovenes almost all acknowledged the enormity of what they’ve accomplished.

“It is, for sure, the biggest thing we have ever done in the history of Slovenian hockey,” said Ziga Jeglic, per NHL.com. (Jeglic has played a crucial role in writing history; he leads the Slovenes in scoring and assisted on Anze Kopitar’s game-winner against Austria.)

The magnitude of the win immediately resonated. Slovenia’s postgame reactions were a mix of happiness with the effort against Austria, and several remarks about how unfathomable this scenario was at the onset of the tourney.

Goalie Robert Kristian, who now has 87 saves on 93 shots for a .935 save percentage, couldn’t believe what transpired.

“The way I feel right now, I’m just speechless,” he said, per the Olympic News Service. “This is a dream come true for everybody, for all the people in Slovenia. Nobody believed that we could accomplish what happened today.”

“I know we were a little bit lucky against this opponent but that doesn’t matter. We’ve showed everyone that we can play hockey and you have to count us. This is the biggest thing in our hockey career.”

At this point, the Slovenes really are living the dream. Getting to the quarterfinals means a guaranteed top-eight finish at the Olympics — crazy, considering Slovenia is playing in the second tier of the 2014 World Hockey Championships — and they’re gaining huge recognition from the hockey world, evident by this anecdote from IIHF.com:

Kopitar said: “Yesterday I was talking to a certain someone who knows a lot about the game of hockey and he said that he’s been following us the last couple of years and he said we’ve done a tremendous work. You can just tell it’s a huge jump from where we were five years ago. To hear that from a guy like that, it’s unbelievable.”

Asked to identify the “certain someone,” Kopitar said: “A guy named Steve Yzerman.”

Following the Austria game, Kopitar expressed huge pride in what he and his teammates had accomplished.

“It means a great deal to me, a huge deal to me,” he said, per ONS. “To represent your country like we are now, it’s great.”

Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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How in the world did he get up?

Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

Talk about hard-headed.

Who could take Taylor Hall’s place if he has to miss the All-Star Game?

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With Taylor Hall set to miss the next couple of games due to a hand injury, and with that injury putting his All-Star Game prospects in jeopardy, we look at the players who are worthy of replacing the New Jersey Devils forward if he has to miss this weekend’s festivities.

Two names that immediately come to mind are Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel and Philadelphia Flyers forward Sean Couturier.

There was already an argument that Kessel deserved to be at the ASG over Sidney Crosby. He was leading the Penguins in points then and two weeks later, he continues to pace Pittsburgh with 21 goals (tied with Evgeni Malkin) and 54 points, three more points than Crosby.

Couturier has already smashed his previous career highs in both goals (26) and points (47). He’s been part of the reason that Claude Giroux is already headed to the ASG and deserves to be there himself.

At third would have to be Sebastian Aho. The talent in the Metropolitan is evident with his snub. He’s clearly the best player on the Carolina Hurricanes this season (no disrespect to Teuvo Teravainen).

Aho is well on his way to eclipsing his rookie-season totals and a big reason why the Hurricanes are three points back of a playoff spot.

Beyond those three guys, there’s a few that certainly deserve the honor:

  • Anders Lee has 27 goals this season, seven off the pace he set last season with half the season to go.
  • Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 45 assists, four more than teammate Giroux.
  • Evgeni Malkin. Not having a bad year.

It’s important to remember that the at-least-one-player-per-team rule goes out the window when it comes to replacing another All-Star.

There are certainly some very deserving names that didn’t get the first call.

But life’s about second chances.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks

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Projected Lines

Tampa Bay Lightning

Nikita KucherovBrayden PointTyler Johnson

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosChris Kunitz

Alex Killorn — Matthew Peca — Yanni Gourde

Michael Bournival — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Jake DotchinAnton Stralman

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi

Braydon CoburnAndrej Sustr

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

NHL on NBCSN: ‘Out of sync’ Lightning look to end three-game losing skid against ‘Hawks

Chicago Blackhawks

Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair

Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman

Tomas Jurco — David Kampf — Vinnie Hinostroza

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Erik Gustafsson — Brent Seabrook

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Jeff Glass

Are Penguins making the right call with Sprong demotion?

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After being a healthy scratch for two games and seemingly being in the doghouse since at least Jan. 17, Daniel Sprong is headed back to the AHL.

To some degree, the move was made because it seems like Bryan Rust is getting ready to return to the mix after being sidelined since Dec. 27. Still, it’s a frustrating development for those who believe in Sprong’s potential as the 46th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

All of the 20-year-old’s points came in one game, as Sprong scored two goals and one assist against the Islanders on Jan. 5. He went without a point in his other seven appearances in the NHL this season, with six coming during his latest stint.

Sprong was in the double digits in ice time each night until the Penguins’ loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 17, when he was glued to the bench from the second period on. Considering his lack of production in general, it’s understandable that head coach Mike Sullivan is more reactive to mistakes.

Certain details make the move more debatable, though.

For those who believe that Ryan Reaves‘ role is antiquated, it must be frustrating to see Sprong get demoted. Reaves has been averaging less than seven minutes per game (6:41) despite taking a spot in the lineup for 49 contests. Pittsburgh is in a life-or-death battle for a playoff spot, and many believe that his presence (and the first rounder they gave up to acquire him) is a waste for the Penguins.

The Pens also seem like they’re taking a questionable all-or-nothing approach with Sprong.

Sprong’s most common even-strength linemates (by far) were Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon, via Natural Stat Trick. Maybe Sprong isn’t quite the right fit for Crosby at this point in his career, but there has to be at least a chance that he could provide more punch for the Penguins’ lineup than someone like Reaves lower in the lineup?

His possession stats have been solid in a small sample size and he hasn’t been shy, firing just less than three shots on goal per game (22 SOG in eight games). Couldn’t the Penguins find room for Rust and Sprong?

These are questions at least some Penguins media members and fans are asking right now, but the bottom line is that the team clearly believes that Reaves is a difference-maker. If Sprong is going to rank as one as well, it sounds like he’ll need to earn his next chance first.

We’ll see how the Sprong-less Penguins fare against the Carolina Hurricanes in a pretty important game on Tuesday. In other Penguins news, Matt Murray was overwhelmed by the support he received from his team and teammates following his father’s death.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.