Five questions ahead of U.S.-Canada semifinal showdown

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1. Will the revenge factor work in the Americans’ favor?

“Everyone knows the history of the two teams in Vancouver,” said Sidney Crosby, referring to the 2010 Olympics when the U.S. beat Canada in the preliminary round, only to lose in the gold-medal game. “They’ll be motivated.”

It was the Canadians who were especially motivated four years ago, with all the pressure of hosting the Games on their home ice. Anything less than gold and they’d have experienced something similar to what the Russians are experiencing right now.

According to American forward David Backes, beating the Canadians was “something that was on our list” coming into Sochi.

“We’ve got 13 returners, which are guys really on a mission to avenge our loss in Vancouver in the gold-medal game,” he said.

Watch the game live online Friday at noon

While Backes didn’t want to overstate things — “the team that loses this isn’t shamed out of the tournament,  or anything like that” — he clearly hasn’t forgotten the disappointment he felt when Crosby scored the golden goal.

2. Will the Canadian forwards start scoring?

Given the depth of talent up front, it’s somewhat extraordinary that only four Canadian forwards have managed to score in four games. Crosby remains goalless, as does Corey Perry, Chris Kunitz, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews, and Patrice Bergeron — all of whom have received a considerable amount of ice time from coach Mike Babcock.

Not that they haven’t had their chances.

“I mean, we were all over them,” Crosby said after Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Latvia. “To get that many shots and that many good quality chances, it was tough to not see it go in.”

The next day, Crosby was again forced to answer questions about his lack of statistical production.

VIDEO: Will Canada raise its level pf play vs. U.S.?

“If the chances are there, you can’t really do much besides make sure you focus on putting them in. I don’t think I’m second guessing anything,” he said.

“I’m playing and reacting, trusting that it’s going to go in and sometimes it feels like it’s not going in very easily, but usually it takes one and they all start going in. I think that’s kind of been the theme with our entire team. We’ve been right around there, doing a lot of good things and we just have to trust and keep doing that until eventually the pucks start going in in bunches.”

There also seems to be a sense among the Canadians that playing the U.S. — as opposed to European sides like Norway, Finland, and Latvia — will be a better fit, style wise.

“Looking at some of the teams we played, they focused first and foremost on checking us and making our lives miserable in the offensive zone,” said Toews. “It just seems like you need one, two or three plays to go right for things to work against those teams. Tomorrow, I think we can check well, we can concentrate on our defensive game and try to make them make mistakes.”

3. Will the American forwards keep scoring?

“I think the Americans have scored really easy in the tournament,” said Babcock. “The puck just seems to go in the net for them, so they’ve been a good team. I don’t think they’ve had a match-up, besides the Russians, where they were beat at all. They’ve just beat everyone big time.”

Phil Kessel has led the way for the U.S., with five goals in four games. Backes has three goals. Dustin Brown and Paul Stastny have two each.

Against Canada, however, the Americans will face a team that’s surrendered just three goals all tournament long, and one that features arguably the best blue line in the world as well as two of the most celebrated defensive forwards, Toews and Bergeron, in the sport.

VIDEO: Highlights from U.S. win vs. Czech Republic

“We are not going to try to outshoot a team like Canada,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma. “We are going in with a blue-collar mentality, to outwork them. We want to win a low-scoring game, a 2-1 game.”

4. How will the American defense hold up?

Against the Russians, Ryan Suter was on the ice for almost 30 minutes, with Bylsma shortening his bench to defend a team with a dangerous top six.

Well, the Canadians not only have a dangerous top six, they have a dangerous top 12. Even after losing John Tavares, all four lines are still filled with NHL all-stars, and that can’t be said for any of the teams the U.S. has faced so far.

Suter should play a ton again Friday, as should Ryan McDonagh. But the difference may be in the performance of a youngster like Cam Fowler or Kevin Shattenkirk, or a veteran like Brooks Orpik or Paul Martin.

If the Americans were going to have an Achilles’ heel in Sochi, a lot of people thought it would be the blue line. So far, that hasn’t been the case. But the U.S. hasn’t seen anything like Canada.

5. How will the goaltending story play out?

Because, really, what big hockey game doesn’t end with at least some talk about the goaltenders? Jonathan Quick and Carey Price have both been solid so far. The former has a .935 save percentage in three games; the latter has a .941 save percentage, also in three games.

“When I’ve seen Quick make some big saves early, he seems to become unbeatable,” said Drew Doughty of Quick, his teammate in L.A. “That’s why we’ve got to get one early on him. The only way we’re going to score on him is that we’ve got to get pucks up high, and we’ve got to get screens in front, and tips. He’s going to make the easy saves every time. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s win vs. Latvia

As for Price? “He’s an unbelievable goalie, so skilled. He’s awesome, and he’s come up big when we needed him. And it’s tough for a goalie to play with only 15, 16 shots. It’s not easy, and he’s done an unbelievable job.”

Still, both Bylsma and Babcock have left themselves open to considerable second-guessing given the guys they relegated to the bench. Ryan Miller was brilliant for the U.S. four years ago in Vancouver, and his numbers this season in Buffalo are better than Quick’s in Los Angeles. Roberto Luongo, meanwhile, won gold for Canada in 2010, and he’s got far more big-game experience than Price, even if all those big games haven’t gone particularly well.

Bylsma and Babcock would’ve been left open to second-guessing whichever goalie they went with, but that won’t make the debate any less heated should one of Quick or Price perform poorly on Friday.

Golden Knights pad Pacific lead, even with Burns’ first goal

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Coming into Friday’s game, what was stranger: Brent Burns having zero goals on the season despite 84 shots on goal in 20 games, or the Vegas Golden Knights leading the Pacific Division?

Both points ended up being relevant to the discussion, as Burns finally scored his first goal of 2017-18 to help the San Jose Sharks rally for a “loser point,” but the Golden Knights ultimately won 5-4 in OT.

With that, the Golden Knights won their fourth game in a row and now have 29 standings points, making for at least a slight cushion for the Pacific Division lead (the Kings are in action, but at 26 points, they’ll trail Vegas even if they manage a comeback win).

Vegas probably wasn’t happy to see a three-goal lead dissolve, yet the Golden Knights just keep plugging away. They enjoyed a strong output from three forwards with plenty to prove in James Neal (one goal, one assist), William Karlsson (two goals), and Jonathan Marchessault (one goal and two assists). Both Neal and Karlsson are at 12 goals on the season now.

The Golden Knights do have a bit to be concerned with, though, and that’s not limited to giving up the lead. Maxime Lagace “wasn’t feeling good” so he left the game for Malcolm Subban, while David Perron suffered an upper-body injury and did not return thanks to this questionable check:

Even in defeat, Burns has to feel relief with this goal:

Heck, even the Sharks seemed to wipe a little sweat off of their brows as the beastly blueliner finally scored.

(Eh, Burns might need a few more goals to get people to stop complaining about his fantasy value. Sorry, Sharks.)

Joe Thornton‘s two assists helped the Sharks secure a standings point, and now he sits alone at 12th all-time in assists, passing Joe Sakic.

The Golden Knights continue to be one of the most heartening stories in the NHL, but even in grabbing the extra point, they’re only five ahead of the Sharks. Fighting off regression won’t be easy for the Golden Knights, yet they have incentive to push for some sort of home-ice advantage, as they improved to an impressive 9-1-0 in Vegas so far in their inaugural season.

You never know how far a good run might take you, so don’t blame the Golden Knights for letting it ride.

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.

Video: Devils’ Butcher with some razzle dazzle to set up Boyle

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If you’re the type to get annoyed when college free agents soak up a lot of attention during the dog days of the hockey summer (Brandon Dubinsky is nodding), you were probably fed up with defenseman Will Butcher by the time he chose the New Jersey Devils as his destination.

Well, at least the 22-year-old blueliner is backing up the hype, especially when it comes to setting up goals.

Butcher’s 15th assist (and 17th point of the season) ranks as one of his best yet, as he totally baffled the Vancouver Canucks before setting up a Brian Boyle goal. You can watch that sweet helper in the video above this post’s headline.

Speaking of Devils rookies, it seems like Nico Hischier is OK after this Alex Edler hit, but the Devils might be wise to keep an eye on the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, as this looked a little worrisome:

Again, it seems like Hischier avoided injury, yet we shall see.

There was also this big hit by Taylor Hall on rising Canucks forward Brock Boeser:

The Devils ended up beating the Canucks 3-2 on Friday.

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.

Well, at least Flyers are getting ‘loser points’

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Love it or hate it, the loser point is a reality in the NHL, and the Philadelphia Flyers are one of the teams that really make things weird with what is now an 8-9-6 record in 2017-18.

8-9-6. Look at that. It almost makes your eyes hurt, right? Something just seems wrong about that.

No doubt about it, there are a lot of reasons to be frustrated if you’re a Flyers fan right now. Most obviously: they’ve now lost seven straight games after falling 5-4 in OT to the New York Islanders. Philly came into the third period with a 4-2 lead that they squandered, aside from getting a “loser point.” There’s at least some frustration with head coach Dave Hakstol:

Still, in this weird standings format, not all losing streaks are equal.

Bad: They dropped two straight games to the Islanders. Good-ish: At least both games went to overtime.

Bad: Yeah, teams that want to take the next step can’t afford many slumps like seven games without a win. Good-ish: They grabbed four points during this skid. They’re at least scrapping for points when they can, in general; while they only have two wins in their last 10 games, yet they’ve managed at least a standings point in all but three (2-3-5, ugh).

Bad: The Flyers are tied for last in the Metropolitan Division, and they’re really last since they’ve generated 22 points in 23 games while the Hurricanes have that many in 20 games played. Good-ish: While they have disadvantages that would force them to make a real run to do damage, you can’t rule out the Flyers in the wild card races.

Ultimately, this team remains … perplexing.

They have one foot in the current, with good stuff like the dominant Claude GirouxSean CouturierJakub Voracek line in mind, even if some of that makes moves like the Brayden Schenn trade sting a little extra. On the other hand, they’re trying to bring along a group of wet-behind-the-ears defensemen, and there’s a fear that that group will take long enough to hit its stride than some of those forwards will start to hit the wall of regression.

Ultimately, it might be crucial for GM Ron Hextall to figure out what to emphasize in the near future, particularly the trade deadline.

At the moment, the Flyers are essentially aiming for the best of both worlds: developing that young talent while hoping to be competitive. That’s a great have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario, but sometimes teams really lower their ceilings by being too trigger-shy to commit one way or the other.

You’d think with a seven-game losing streak, that Philly would be downright-bad. Instead, they seem more stuck in the middle, and such a situation presents its own set of problems, or at least some head-scratching questions.

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.

Jets basically have two top lines, and that’s scary

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At times, this season feels like The Year of the Mega-Lines.

Even so, the modern NHL is cruel to offense, and many of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop, as much as we want the fun to continue. What if Steven StamkosNikita Kucherov is driven down by injuries? Can Brayden Schenn remain a point-per-game player with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz into the spring?

A lot has been going right for the Winnipeg Jets lately, as they improved to 14-5-3 after beating the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 on Friday. It was their sixth win in seven games; they’ve gone 11-2-3 since beginning 2017-18 with a sputtering 3-3-0 mark.

Still, there are some of those red flags that make you wonder if the party might stop soon. They ranked second in the NHL in even-strength PDO (via Natural Stat Trick) coming into today’s action, one of the go-to signs that a Cinderella story may end. Their possession numbers have left much to be desired. Connor Hellebuyck might be playing over his head.

All or at least most of those considerations are worth some concern.

Even so, Friday managed to shine a spotlight on a scary notion: the Jets might possess the equivalent of two “top lines,” or at least an electric top duo and a young, rising one that isn’t far behind.

Around the start of the season, the Jets raised some eyebrows – mine, anyway – by handing Nikolaj Ehlers a seven-year extension that carries a $6 million cap hit. It’s not like the 21-year-old lacked signs of brilliance; instead, it was just a little startling to see them be so proactive with a big contract and term rather than seeing if his 25-goal, 64-point breakthrough from 2016-17 was “for real.”

It’s incredibly early, but Ehlers is making it look like a wise decision, if not an outright steal. There are even moments when you might catch yourself wondering, “Is he just about as good as Patrik Laine?”

Perhaps the Ducks thought that way today, as Ehlers dropped two goals and an assist on them.

Snickers turn to nods of begrudging approval when you hear talk about “shot quality” with a team that might just have an excess of high-end shooters. After all, you can only cheat to cut off shooters so much if it means giving Ehlers too much time and space:

Laine played somewhere between coy and possum when discussing how hockey was “hard” for him during a relative scoring slump, as he’s climbing to right where the Jets would want him to be. Since November began, the 19-year-old has only failed to score a point in a single game and averages a point-per-night. (Overall, he has 17 points in 22 contests.)

This outburst gives Ehlers 10 goals and 17 points, and perhaps the Jets’ risky investment in Bryan Little may look better if he can merely set the table for these two. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the Ehlers – Laine benefit from the occasional wake-up call, though.

And, again, the scary part is that Ehlers – Laine isn’t even the first pairing you’d underline on the whiteboard.

Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler both sit at 25 points even after being blanked on Friday, and it seems like they might have found their third amigo in Kyle Connor, another young forward coming up the ranks in Winnipeg.

It has to be disheartening for opponents to consider that they might shut down Scheifele – Wheeler and still get blitzed out of the building by Laine and Ehlers, yet that’s the predicament you face, particularly since the Jets boast the sort of defensemen who might force you to “stay honest” in the likes of Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba.

Does this all mean that Winnipeg can just pencil in its first playoff games, nay, series wins already? No, they have questions, all the way up to if Paul Maurice can make it all work.

That said, days like these make you wonder if the talent will do all the work for him.

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.