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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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.

Is Vancouver considering a Markstrom-Nilsson reunion in goal?

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With news that Ryan Miller is set to sign in Anaheim, the Canucks need a netminder to pair with Jacob Markstrom.

And a new report suggests they’re contemplating one of Markstrom’s old crease mates.

Per WGR 550, Vancouver has interest in soon-to-be Sabres UFA Anders Nilsson. Nilsson, 27, is coming off a pretty nice year in Buffalo, where he posted a .923 save percentage over 26 games (while making 23 starts).

Nilsson played last season on a one-year, $1 million deal, just like he did the season prior. But ’16-17 was by far his most successful campaign at the NHL level and, accordingly, he’s drawn interest from across the league.

As mentioned above, Nilsson is pretty familiar with Markstrom. They formed the one-two punch in goal for Sweden at the 2010 World Juniors — capturing bronze in the process — and have an awful lot in common. Both are 27. Their frames are eerily similar in that both are tall, physically imposing netminders — Markstrom is listed at 6-foot-6, 196 pounds while Nilsson is listed at 6-foot-6, 229 pounds.

The Canucks will likely want Markstrom to work in tandem with someone next season. Given his body of work, it’s fair to suggest they won’t hand him the keys to a No. 1 job. So if a timeshare is in the works, it makes sense to go with someone he has history with.

From the Nilsson perspective, Vancouver’s as good an opportunity as any right now. Available goalie spots are getting snapped up almost daily, and there are still several UFAs looking for work: Brian Elliott, Steve Mason, Jonathan Bernier, Chad Johnson, Darcy Kuemper and Ondrej Pavelec, specifically.

 

 

Oilers put Pouliot on waivers for buyout purposes

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Benoit Pouliot‘s time in Edmonton has come to an end.

The 30-year-old forward has been placed on unconditional waivers for the purposes of being bought out.

A buyout will mean a $1.33 million cap hit the next four seasons, as opposed to a $4 million cap hit the next two years if Pouliot remained on the roster.

The Oilers could use the cap space, what with Connor McDavid on the verge of signing a massive extension that will start in 2018-19, and Leon Draisaitl requiring an extension for next season.

Pouliot had just eight goals and six assists in 67 games last season.

Related: For Oilers, trading Jordan Eberle was about ‘long-term thinking’

Agent: Numerous Stanley Cup contenders have called on Kunitz

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Chris Kunitz is in demand.

That’s the word from agent Ben Hankinson, who this week told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette his 37-year-old client is garnering major interest from a number of teams — and certain kinds of teams, to be clear.

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Hankinson, who represents Kunitz, said he’s fielded calls from as many as 10 teams with a legitimate shot at knocking off the Penguins next season, all interested in signing Kunitz.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Hankinson said. “Chris does have interest from a lot of teams. Who knows exactly where that interest is going to be once the offers start flying around, but he does have a lot of interest.”

Kunitz, who turns 38 in September, has been told by GM Jim Rutherford to explore free agency (to be fair, Rutherford told all his UFAs this). It’s going to be really interesting what that means for Kunitz, who could bring plenty to a team looking to make a postseason run.

For starters, there’s his experience. Few active NHLers have played — and won — in the playoffs as much as Kunitz. He’s got 161 games on his resume with four Stanley Cups, and was a key contributor for Pittsburgh this past spring.

In 20 games, Kunitz racked up 11 points while averaging 14:52 TOI per night. His nine assists put him tied for fourth on the team, and he famously scored the double-OT winner against Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Given the lack of options in this year’s free agent class, Kunitz could score a pretty decent contract. That’s important, as it might be his last. The cagey veteran spoke at the Stanley Cup Final about how this could very well be his last kick at the can with Pittsburgh, and acknowledged that — given how limited opportunities are to win in the NHL — he needed to capitalize on every single one.

“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.

“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”

Report: Kovalchuk talking extension with KHL club

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Last week, Devils GM Ray Shero was of the belief that Ilya Kovalchuk was still planning to play in the NHL next season.

Today, however, a Russian media outlet is reporting that Kovalchuk is talking with his KHL club, SKA Saint Petersburg, about a possible extension.

If accurate, that would mesh with an earlier report — the one that Shero ostensibly shot down — that Kovalchuk had decided to keep playing in Russia.

The NHL’s decision to skip the 2018 Winter Olympics may be weighing on Kovalchuk. If he returns to North America, he won’t be able to represent his country in South Korea — a fact that was cemented last week when the NHL released its 2017-18 schedule.

Of course, all this could just be SKA Saint Petersburg making a last-ditch attempt to keep Kovalchuk.

“We have the desire to keep Ilya. He is our hockey player, a patriot and loves to play for the national team,” said club president Gennady Timchenko (translated, per Sportsnet). “We will talk today, and we might have some news later.”

Kovalchuk can’t sign an NHL contract until July 1.