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U.S. past ‘miracle’ stage in Olympic hockey (except vs. Canada)

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SOCHI, Russia – This seems to be the Olympics when everyone around United States hockey officially got sick of the Miracle on Ice. Well, it was inevitable. With the Olympics being in Russia, with famed Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (who was pulled in the Miracle) lighting the torch, with my generation reaching the age of cloying nostalgia and with the U.S. men’s team looking for its first Olympics hockey gold since that 1980 team, everything pointed to overkill.*

*Which I happily participated in.

Thing is, hockey in America is nothing like it was in 1980. This was the point the U.S. hockey team kept hammering. Everything has changed. Now, professional hockey players are at the Olympic. Now, the U.S. team has some of the best players in the world. Now, the U.S. team has speed and size and depth that is the envy of almost every hockey-playing country in the world. When the U.S. team played Russia this time around, it was the Americans who were favored, and the Americans who played the villains when they got a favorable call and won in a gritty shootout.

So, yes, everybody was ready to move on from the constant reminders about a bunch of college hockey players who won a gold medal 34 years ago.

Trouble is, to get people to stop talking about the Miracle on Ice, you have to stop losing one-goal games to Canada when it matters most.

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s 1-0 win

The U.S. did lose another one-goal game to Canada in an Olympic semifinal Friday … this after the U.S. women one day earlier lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game … this after the U.S. men lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game in Vancouver, one of the most famous hockey games ever played.

To be fair, the United States’ 1-0 loss to Canada was different from the others. It felt cleaner and did not leave much room for regret. That’s because the Canadians pretty thoroughly outplayed the Americans. Was it not for some head-stand saves from Jonathan Quick – “our best player tonight,”  U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said – the score easily could have been 3-0 or 4-0.

Meanwhile the “0” on the American end of the score was more or less locked in. It is hard to imagine a team playing more suffocating defense than Canada played Friday. The U.S. power play was rendered all but useless. And other than a couple of moderate chances early and Paul Stansny’s point-blank shots in front in the second period, the U.S. rarely even threatened to score.

VIDEO: U.S. can’t find an empty net in final minute

The game was played at a high level—the speed on the ice was mesmerizing — and it was entertaining in its own way. But it really was quite a let-down from the famous gold medal game of four years ago. Well, for one thing that was a gold-medal match, while this was a semifinal just to see who would play Sweden for gold. That was a quirk in the seeding, and it definitely altered some of the emotion.*

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Photo credit: AP

Then there was the quiet. Here you had the two best hockey teams on earth – two of the most talented hockey teams ever put together – and it was so eerily quiet in the Bolshoy Ice Palace. Every now and again, a hearty soul would try to start up a U-S-A chant or beg the Canadians to finish one of their numerous goal-scoring chances and then it would dissolve into stillness.

Much of the time, the arena was quiet enough to read bedtime stories aloud.

So strange … but then maybe not. No event at these Olympics brought so much pain to the host country as hockey. The Russian hockey team lost to the U.S. in the aforementioned shootout that was, for many Americans, the emotional peak of these Olympics and was for Russian fans the very symbol of fraud. A goal-ahead goal by the Russians was nullified because the cage of the net was slightly off its mooring. Russians who even conceded the point that the net WAS off still believed that U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had been the one to knock it off. Angry fans demonstrated in Moscow. Television networks replayed the disallowed goal again and again.

Then, more disconcerting, the Russian team disappeared in a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland that featured no controversy and also no life from a gifted collection of Russian players who never quite came together.

So, it is logical that there simply wasn’t much enthusiasm left for the sport. Tack on the Russians’ famous reticence – something that various non-Russian figure skaters noticed during their soundless programs – and what you had was a striking lack of energy and volume. We grow so used to the biggest sporting events being loud and the tension being almost tangible.

But Friday, early in the second period, Canada’s Jay Bouwmeester – a tough defenseman not necessarily known for his playmaking abilities – slapped a pass that Jamie Benn deflected over Quick to give Canada that 1-0 lead. And then the rest of the game just kind of melted away almost unnoticed. Those sounds you associate with a close and important hockey game – the roars for developing chances, the groans when shots slip wide, the gasps when the winning team narrowly escapes – were largely nonexistent. It was a bit like being in a Vegas casino with no clocks. Time just gushes away.

VIDEO: Jamie Benn’s shot the only goal

In any case, the U.S. never came especially close to tying the game, and Canada came very close to extending the lead and it was clear, on this day anyway, that there’s still a gap between Canadian and American hockey. Maybe this is as it should be considering how intently Canadian life revolves around the sport (some 80 percent of Canada watched at least part of the 2010 gold medal game).

But it is a blow for a United States still trying to move past the Miracle on Ice. Bylsma made the point after the game that U.S. hockey is at a place now where it hardly needs a miracle to win a gold medal. He’s right, of course. All the U.S. really needs is a couple more goals against Canada. Thing is, that’s the proving to be about as elusive as miracles.

NBC and NBCSN have you covered for Hockey Day in America

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With two games on NBC and then two more on NBCSN, your Sunday should be jam-packed with Hockey Day in America action. A look at the hockey hotbed of Warroad, Minnesota adds a delectable cherry on top, too.

If you need a guide to this party of pucks and patriotism, look no further than this post.

Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and the dominant Capitals take on Ryan McDonagh and the Blueshirts. The Metropolitan Division represents some of the NHL’s upper crust, so don’t be fooled by the Rangers being the first wild card while the Caps are tops in the East; both of these teams can go. Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will be there to call the action.

MORE: For Oshie, ties to Warroad run deep

Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins, 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC

Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk will be in the booth for this battle between teams that met in back-to-back Stanley Cup Final series in 2008 and 2009. Along with usual suspects like Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg, these teams feature American scorers such as Dylan Larkin and, of course, Phil Kessel.

Chicago Blackhawks at Buffalo Sabres, 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN

The action shifts to NBCSN as Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks hope to teach Jack Eichel and the upstart Sabres a lesson or two. The Blackhawks are in playoff position, as usual, while Buffalo is rallying to try to make a push of its own. Gord Miller and Joe Micheletti will be your guides.

MORE: Islanders forward Brock Nelson’s journey from Warroad to the NHL

Boston Bruins at San Jose Sharks, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Hockey Day in America’s coverage closes off with this matchup between David Backes‘ Bruins and Joe Pavelski‘s Sharks. Randy Hahn, Andy Brickley and Bret Hedican will take you through this match between the Pacific Division’s top team and a Bruins team fighting to stick in the East playoff picture.

Barkov’s beautiful goal pushes Panthers into playoff position

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 26: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers circles the net with the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Blue Jackets 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers just won’t be denied as they end the night in the East’s top eight.

It’s fitting, then, that Aleksander Barkov wouldn’t be denied on his game-winner against Los Angeles on Saturday.

Barkov bursts beyond multiple Kings, fights off what would have been an obstruction penalty and then beats Peter Budaj by the narrowest of margins to give the Panthers a 3-2 lead 15 seconds into the third period. They would never relinquish that edge to Los Angeles, winning their fourth game in a row.

In the process, the Panthers – a team that seemed to be fledgling when it fired Gerard Gallant – now find themselves in the East’s top eight. Heck, they’re actually above the wild card fray by a hair.

Before we get to that … just bask in the glow of this Barkov goal:

Again, it was such a small window to beat Budaj, too:

(If the Panthers’ place in the standings doesn’t sway you into taking them seriously, maybe note plays like that and the fact that Barkov has 20 points in his last 17 games.)

OK, so with this win, the Panthers did some serious leapfrogging. They now rank third in the Atlantic Division (thanks to a game in hand on Boston) and have more points than Toronto as far as wild card concerns go, anyway.

Atlantic Division rankings

1. Canadiens – 70 points in 59 games
2. Senators – 68 points in 56 games
3. Panthers – 64 points in 57 games

Bruins – 64 in 58
Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Sabres – 62 in 59
Lightning – 58 in 57
Red Wings – 56 in 58

From a wild card perspective

Third in Atlantic – Panthers – 64 points in 57 games
Second wild card – Bruins – 64 in 58

Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Islanders – 62 in 57
Sabres – 62 in 59
Flyers – 61 in 58
Devils – 60 in 58
Lightning – 58 in 57
Hurricanes – 56 in 54
Red Wings – 56 in 58

Everything’s so close that the Panthers can’t pop champagne bottles, but they’re also very much in control over their hopes. While it never hurts to see your competitors stumble, the Panthers can take care of business. They “control their own destiny,” to use silly sports parlance.

And considering how they’ve been playing lately, they might be as tough to handle in the playoffs as Barkov was to stop on that outstanding 3-2 goal.

Stars made Dave Strader’s return to the booth special

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It was a special night as the Dallas Stars beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in overtime, but the most memorable moment wasn’t the win or Antoine Roussel‘s hat trick.

Instead, it was how the team embraced Dave Strader’s return to the broadcasting booth as he continues to fight cancer.

Don’t be ashamed if his comments to the Dallas Morning News leave you emotional:

“This is the first time, to be honest with you, that for four hours I didn’t feel like I was sick at all,” Strader said after the game. “Maybe it was the adrenaline high, but I really, really feel great right now.”

Again, the team really did some great things to welcome him back, but the highlight was saluting him after the game. Incredible stuff.

“What a gesture by the boys … meant so much to me and my wife! Thank you.” Strader tweeted after the game.

As this post notes, Strader is expected to do play-by-play for four more Stars games.

Add allowing center-ice goal to Brian Elliott’s rough season

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So far, there’s just one goal in tonight’s Calgary Flames – Vancouver Canucks game. And it wasn’t a good one.

The Canucks couldn’t manage a shot on goal for more than half of the first period, maybe putting Brian Elliott to sleep … as Alexander Edler scored the 1-0 goal from center ice on Vancouver’s first shot that actually got on net. Ouch.

It’s already been a tough season for Brian Elliott, who came into Saturday with an .898 save percentage.

Elliott was perfect through the rest of the first two periods, so we’ll see if Calgary can overcome that gaffe.

Update: The Canucks ended up winning 2-1 in overtime. Ryan Miller was the better of the two goalies in this one.