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Slovenes have ‘heads up high’ after Olympic elimination, and rightly so

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Slovenia’s Olympic journey came to an end on Wednesday as it was defeated 5-0 by Sweden in the tournament quarterfinals.

While it wasn’t the way any of the Slovenes wanted it to end — it was a one-goal game heading into the third period, after all — players were quick to put the loss in perspective.

“It’s been a great tournament for us,” leading scorer Ziga Jeglic told IIHF.com. “We’ll have our heads up high when we come home.”

In terms of Olympic Cinderellas, Slovenia has etched itself in history alongside Belarus in 2002 and the Slovaks in 2010. But to be honest, those don’t really compare — Belarus really only did one notable thing at the Games (beat Sweden in which was, admittedly, one of the biggest upsets in hockey history) and were routed on a number of occasions. The Slovakians certainly surprised in ’10, but had a roster rife with NHL talent: Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Lubomir Visnovsky and Jaroslav Halak, to name a few.

What Slovenia did in Sochi was unique.

Selecting from a pool of 148 registered hockey players — which, let’s be honest, is a good-sized North American beer league — Slovenia came to the Olympics boasting just one NHLer (Anze Kopitar) and zero history of international success. Heck, the Slovenes are still playing in the second-tier of the World Hockey Championships, along with luminaries like South Korea, Great Britain and Hungary.

Yet none of that kept the Slovenes from getting after it in Sochi. “Getting after it” is the key, because they didn’t sit back and try to play for ties. They were down 3-2 heading into the third period of a daunting opener against Russia. They beat the Slovaks 3-1 while putting 31 shots on goal. The Slovenes then scored three more against Austria in the opening playoff round to advance to the quarterfinals. They were aggressive. They worked hard.

Slovenia even kept in close in today’s loss to the Swedes, despite the 5-0 scoreline. Sweden needed four third-period goals to put the Slovenes away, an effort that drew high praise from goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

“They hang around for two periods and you never know if it can be a different game,” he said, per NHL.com. “You just need to play your best and have that little extra luck in these types of games by working hard.

“This was a game we had to win. We didn’t expect to go easy and it didn’t, until the end. Up until then, it was a big fight out there.”

With their Olympics now over, the Slovenes will head home with an unexpected eighth-place finish and the respect of the hockey world. It’s quite the accomplishment — just ask Kopitar.

“To be quite honest, we thought we could come in and stir the pot a little bit, maybe get a point here and there, and see what happens,” he said, per NHL.com. “After we played Russia I thought our confidence came up a bit. The way we played against the Slovaks was obviously a huge confidence-builder. After that, I mean, we were a confident bunch.

“We felt we got a few more tricks up our sleeves. Again, the quarterfinals at the Olympics is really well done for us.”

Predators smash Sharks to get back in series

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After a dispiriting 1-0 goal allowed by Pekka Rinne, things were looking bleak for the Nashville Predators for a moment there.

Nashville’s developed into a resilient group, however, and they stormed back for a commanding 4-1 win to shrink San Jose’s series advantage to 2-1.

The Predators saw some of their big names come up huge as the series shifted from San Jose to Nashville.

Pekka Rinne looked sharp following that first goal (and didn’t allow another). Their goals came from James Neal, Colin Wilson, Filip Forsberg and captain Shea Weber.

Weber’s tally was the game-winner, and it was downright thunderous:

Another promising sign: after a struggling to a 2-for-31 clip in previous playoff games, the Predators’ power play went 2-for-5 in Game 3.

Overall, the Predators really couldn’t ask for much more from this win, especially if Colton Sissons is indeed OK after a scary crash into the Sharks’ net.

Things could get really interesting if Nashville manages to “hold serve” with another home win on Thursday.

Stars’ goalie carousel goes around again: Lehtonen replaces Niemi

Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi (31) subs in for goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Dallas. The Stars won 6-5. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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It’s pretty tough not to make jokes about the Dallas Stars spending $10.4 million on their goalies at times like these, even if Dallas’ defense should shoulder plenty of blame.

After Kari Lehtonen was pulled from a Game 2 loss, the St. Louis Blues chased Antti Niemi early in the second period of Game 3 after Niemi allowed three goals on 12 shots.

Troy Brouwer‘s 3-1 goal was enough for Lindy Ruff to give Niemi the hook:

Unfortunately for the Stars, Lehtonen got off to a slow start as well, allowing an immediate Vladimir Tarasenko goal.

The Blues are now 4-1 and the Stars are searching for answers … and probably wishing Tyler Seguin was around to help them out-score their problems.

Islanders believe Boyle should be suspended for hit before OT goal

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Thomas Hickey is involved in a controversial hit, yet the greater debate may revolve around the one he received rather than the one he delivered.

In the second period, the New York Islanders defenseman connected for a thunderous hit on Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin, which sidelined Drouin for a chunk of Game 3.

Many believe that hit was legal:

The Islanders are upset about the Brian Boyle hit on Hickey in overtime, which came moments before Boyle scored the game-winning goal. You can see the full sequence here, with the hit happening around the 50-second mark:

Islanders head coach Jack Capuano believes that it was a suspension-worthy hit.

You’re not going to believe this, but the Lightning disagree.

Boyle clearly didn’t receive a penalty on that sequence, yet one would imagine that the league will at least take a look at that hit.

Lightning take dramatic OT win vs. Islanders, go up 2-1 in series

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Brian Boyle was part of the fight before Game 3 even started … and then he ended it in overtime.

In a Tampa Bay Lightning win in which they just kept rolling with the New York Islanders’ punches, it only seems fitting that Boyle battled to land a big hit and then score the clinching goal for a 5-4 overtime victory.

This gives the Lightning a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4.

Also fitting? Boyle landed a big hit on Thomas Hickey, the guy who sidelined Jonathan Drouin for a chunk of this contest.

That sequence prompted a brief goal review, but it ultimately stood:

(Was that Boyle hit on Hickey dirty, by the way?)

Drama was in the air from the beginning, yet Drouin really stole the show when he came back from what some believe was a concussion to assist on Nikita Kucherov‘s last-minute goal, which sent the game to overtime.

In some ways, this win feels like a microcosm of the Lightning’s season. They keep getting hit in the mouth with injuries and near-injuries, yet they just won’t stay down.

The Islanders saw three leads disappear in this contest, but one would think that they won’t roll over, either.