Once again, Finns ‘find a way’ to achieve Olympic success

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Since NHLers began Olympic participation in 1998, only one country has medaled three times.

It’s not Canada, it’s not the U.S., it’s not Sweden and it’s not Russia.

It’s Finland.

On Wednesday, the Finns made a push for a fourth, defeating Russia 3-1 to set up a semifinal date with arch rivals Sweden. In typical fashion, Finland beat the Russians with strengths exhibited in previous Olympics — strong goaltending, smart play and tireless work ethic.

“Even though no one ever picks us to win medals we always seem to find a way to get there,” Tuukka Rask said after the game, per Sportsnet.

VIDEO: Highlights from Finland’s 3-1 win

Rask has been phenomenal over the last two contests, reminiscent of the performance Antero Niittymakki put up at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, when he backstopped the Finns to silver and won tournament MVP. Rask stopped 37 of 38 Russian shots on Wednesday, this coming after he made 25 saves in a 2-1 OT loss to Canada in the final group game.

“We gave it everything,” said a dismayed Pavel Datsyuk. “We can’t score today.”

Rask’s been a major part of Finland’s success, though hardly the only part. Mikael Granlund, the 21-year-old Minnesota center, has played extremely well and leads the team with five points. His effort against Russia — setting up Teemu Selanne’s game-winning goal, then scoring the insurance marker — was impressive, even more so considering Granlund was forced into a larger role after injuries befell the likes of Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov.

Granlund’s shown the type of resiliency that extended across the Finnish team. To steal some football parlance, the “next man up” philosophy rang true with the players — Jarko Immonen, one of the replacements for Koivu and Filppula, played nearly 15 minutes against the Russians on Wednesday, winning 55 percent of his draws. Petri Kontiola, a 29-year-old KHLer, won eight of nine faceoffs, registered an assist and played over 17 minutes, finishing plus-2.

It’s the kind of mentality assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen described prior to the Games getting underway.

“It’ll be all about team. That’s our strength and we love to be the underdog,” he explained. “We’re going to bite everybody’s ankles and not let go — that’s the only way we’re going to be successful.”

Despite that colorful explanation and its history of Olympic success, few picked Finland to medal in Sochi, and even fewer gave the Finns a shot after injuries hit.

No problem, according to Selanne.

“You know that nobody ever believed that we could win, but it doesn’t matter,” he said, per TSN 1050. The experts are wrong many times.”

Red Wings would like Jimmy Howard to play 50-55 games

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Due to injury and losing his starting job, Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has appeared in just 63 games the past two seasons, starting only 57 of them. For a goalie that was once one of the better starters in the league it has been a difficult couple of years.

Based on some recent comments from goalie coach Jeff Salajko, the Red Wings not only seem prepared to give Howard his starting job back at the start of this season, but also would like to see him nearly match his games played total from the past two seasons.

Here is Salajko talking about the team’s goaltending situation — including the expected roles for Petr Mrazek and Jared Coureau — to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press.

 “We’re very comfortable with Jared as a third. I have no problem with him being the backup goalie, either. If we can keep Jimmy Howard healthy to play 50-55 games, I was comfortable with Jared in a role like that. But we obviously have Petr back – Vegas didn’t have interest in him, so I’m hoping he comes in with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.”

Mrazek entered this past season as the Red Wings’ starter but really struggled in that role. The Red Wings were reportedly frustrated with his attitude and ended up leaving him unprotected in the expansion draft, but the Vegas Golden Knights opted not to select him.

When Howard was healthy this past season he played some of the best hockey of his career, finishing with a career-best .927 save percentage. It represented quite a bounce back for him after three consecutive years with a below league average save percentage.

Howard returning to that level of play would certainly be a boost for the Red Wings. Not only because their roster is probably the weakest it has been in decades and is going to need great goaltending to compete, but because between him and Mrazek they have more than $9 million invested in the position. For a team that is already pressed to the limits of the salary cap getting anything less than above average play out of that duo would be pretty devastating to their chances this season.

Zibanejad looking for $5.35 million from Rangers in arbitration

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The New York Rangers and restricted free agent forward Mika Zibanejad are scheduled for an arbitration hearing on Tuesday if they can not come to an agreement on a new contract before them.

On Sunday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the numbers both sides are looking at heading into that hearing and they don’t seem to be too far apart. According to Friedman, Zibanejad is seeking a $5.35 million salary while the Rangers have countered with an offer of $4.1 million. If the two sides were able to meet in the middle that would be in the neighborhood of around $4.7 million per season, which probably seems about right given Zibanejad’s performance and some of the contracts that have recently been signed by the likes of Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat (both will make a little more than $5 million per season, while both have been more productive).

Zibanejad, 24, is coming off of his first season with the Rangers after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the Derrick Brassard trade.

He was limited to just 56 games due to injury, scoring 14 goals to go with 23 assists. He scored at least 20 goals in each of the previous two seasons.

With Derek Stepan gone to Arizona Zibanejad figures to take on a bigger role this season for the Rangers.

The Rangers still have $8.4 million in salary cap space to work with, via CapFriendly.

New addition Thompson thinks Senators are ‘ready to win’

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Even after reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17 there is still probably some skepticism as to how good the Ottawa Senators will be this upcoming season and whether or not they can repeat that success.

They didn’t do much to add to that roster over the summer outside of the addition of gritty forward Nate Thompson on a two-year contract from the Anaheim Ducks.

Thompson is excited about the opportunity to join the Senators and believes the success of the team last season was not a fluke.

“This team now is ready to win,” he told Ken Warren of the Ottawa Sun this past week. “I don’t think this was a Cinderella team, it was the real deal. They have a pretty good window to win games and hopefully do something even more special.”

It’s going to probably be a little more difficult this season given some of the improvements that have been made by teams around them (Tampa Bay and Toronto should be better than they were a year ago; Montreal and Boston will still be fierce contenders as well) and the fact the Senators themselves might see a bit of a regression in the standings if their overall play doesn’t change much. Keep in mind, for all of the success they had in the playoffs this was still a team that gave up more goals than it scored during the regular season. That is not typically a recipe for long-term success.

Thompson, who will turn 33 at the start of the season, will be relied on primarily to fill a bottom-six role and perhaps help in the faceoff circle. He is coming off of a 2016-17 season in Anaheim that saw him be limited to just 30 games, scoring one goal and adding one assist before recording six points (two goals, four assists) in the playoffs for the Ducks on their run to the Western Conference Finals. He spent the past three seasons playing for the Ducks and also has experience playing for Senators coach Guy Boucher during their time together in Tampa Bay.

Preds GM Poile still has work to do, with Johansen in need of a deal

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David Poile got some work done Saturday.

The Nashville Predators re-signed Viktor Arvidsson on the day the two sides had an arbitration hearing scheduled. The new deal? Seven years at a total of $29.75 million — an annual average value of $4.25 million for a player that just scored 31 goals while playing on the top line with Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg.

The Predators made a run at the Stanley Cup last month, doing so with great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, a top-four group of defensemen that you can argue sets the standard around the league and a talented group of forwards — a number of them with age on their side.

They didn’t win it all, but Poile was recognized for his work by claiming General Manager of the Year.

This is likely among the reasons why.

Roman Josi still has three years left on his deal, while Mattias Ekholm, who was a valuable and reliable top-four d-man playing alongside P.K. Subban, has five years remaining on his deal.

With the Arvidsson contract completed, the priority is now to get Johansen — a restricted free agent — signed. At age 24, he’s Nashville’s No. 1 center coming off a 61-point season, which completed his three-year, $12 million deal.

He was also in the midst of a terrific playoff performance before he suffered a thigh injury and postseason-ending surgery. He’s in line for a significant raise from the $4 million AAV he made on his last contract.

The Predators have about $14.5 million remaining in cap space, per CapFriendly.