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.”

NHL on NBCSN: Banged-up Lightning continue push for playoff spot against ‘Hawks

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

Despite the crazy amount of injuries that the Lightning have suffered (Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Jason Garrison are all out), they find themselves within striking distance of a post-season berth.

Coming into tonight’s tilt against the ‘Hawks, the Bolts are three points behind Boston for the final Wild Card spot in the East. The Lightning have a game in hand on the Bruins, but Boston has five more regulation/overtime wins.

After dropping a 5-3 decision to Arizona on home ice last Tuesday, they rebounded by beating the B’s and Wings on the road on Thursday and Friday.

One of the big reasons why the Lightning have been able to stay in the race, is because of  the way Nikita Kucherov has played this season.

On Friday, with the Bolts trailing the Wings 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov helped set up Ondrej Palat‘s game-tying goal before adding the OT winner later on.

The 23-year-old is up to 38 goals and 40 assists in 67 games. He’s accumulated 29 of those points in his last 16 games and he’s put together four multi-point efforts in a row.

If the Bolts make it to the playoffs, is Kucherov the MVP?

Don’t expect the Blackhawks to be in a particularly good mood coming into this game. Not only did they drop Saturday night’s game in Florida, but they were absolutely annihilated, 7-0.

“There’s no reason we should be entirely satisfied at this point,” captain Jonathan Toews said after the loss, per the Chicago Tribune. “There’s always room to grow.

“We can’t expect it’s going to be easy hockey (the) last seven games. If we continue to play like that and think we’re going to turn it on come playoff time, we’ve got another thing coming.”

The Blackhawks had a bit of a rough week, as they lost 5-4 in OT to the Canucks on Tuesday before narrowly beating the Stars 3-2 in a shootout on Thursday. But overall, they’ve been on a pretty good run. In their last eight contests, they’ve gone 6-1-1, which is far from poor.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for the Bruins to move on from Tuukka Rask?

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Tuukka Rask has shown that he can be one of the top goalies in the NHL, but CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty thinks that his inability to deliver in big games is becoming a serious problem. Haggerty even suggests that the Bruins should consider shipping him out of town this summer. It’s an interesting thought. (CSN New England)

–Nolan Patrick is expected to go first overall in next June’s entry draft, but his draft year has been anything but ordinary. He missed the first 34 games of the season with an undisclosed injury, which must be pretty frustrating. But Patrick has gone through a similar situation before. When he was a young teenager, Patrick broke his collarbone twice. He was able to shake the injuries off and turn himself into a top prospect. (Sportsnet)

–Take a look at the top seven plays of the week in and around the NHL. If you’re fed up of seeing Sidney Crosby score ridiculous goals, do not watch this video. (NBC Sports)

–The Flyers got six goals from six different players in their win over the Penguins last night. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page. Philly is now six points back of Boston for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

–Sabres forward Brian Gionta will be playing in his 1000th NHL game tonight. As you’d imagine, the 5-foot-7 forward didn’t have an easy path to the big show, but he was still able to carve out a great career for himself. “To be out there and part of his 1,000th game, it’s a proud moment for me,” teammate Josh Gorges said. “I know it’s a proud moment for him. We’ve talked about it before, and it’s an amazing accomplishment. … We’re all looking forward to it.” (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

–Did you really think that changing the goalies’ pants was going to result in more goals scored? Well, let’s just say it hasn’t worked out that way. Before the change, teams were scoring 2.73 goals-per-game. Since the change, that number is slightly down at 2.70. (The Score)

–Jets super fan Kiera Neal was diagnosed with cancer at the age of one, but Neal, now 10, is doing well and is cancer free. Her wish was to meet the Winnipeg Jets and her favorite player Dustin Byfuglien, and the people at Hometown Hockey made it happen:

Ducks cement Pacific lead as Getzlaf continues his mammoth March

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By the end of Sunday night, the Anaheim Ducks removed all doubt: they’re on top of the Pacific Division.

Now, it’s not the sort of substantial lead that the sliding San Jose Sharks squandered; Anaheim merely leads the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers by two standings points after beating the New York Rangers 6-3.

With everyone at 75 games played, it’s kind of nice to enjoy the clarity that comes with a clear lead (though the Sharks and Oilers will disagree):

Pacific top four (all teams with 75 games played)

1. Ducks – 93 points (38 ROW, 41 W)
2. Sharks – 91 poitns (40 ROW, 42 W)
3. Oilers – 91 points (37 ROW, 41 W)

Flames – 88 points (38 ROW, 42 W)

The Ducks are now on a four-game winning streak and managed an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10 contests.

With all due respect to Patrick Eaves‘ two goals, it’s Ryan Getzlaf who’s really playing outstanding hockey. He generated four assists in this one, giving him eight helpers in his past four games. He now has a whopping 20 points in March.

A lot going on – fight included – between Corey Perry, Brendan Smith (Video)

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If there’s one thing that’s undeniable from the clip going on, it’s that Corey Perry and Brendan Smith squeezed a lot of activity (carnage?) into a single shift.

Early on in Sunday’s New York Rangers – Anaheim Ducks game, both player delivered hits that were at least borderline dangerous. After that, they traded punches in a pretty solid fight (especially since they seemed a little tired because, again, this was a fairly elaborate sequence).

It’s way too messy a sequence to call neat, but there is something efficient about trading hits and then getting into a fight. That’s a mini-hockey feud in short order.

If you want a pretty moment to counteract all that, check out the great puck movement on this 3-on-1 goal for the Rangers: