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

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Photo credit: AP

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.

It sounds like Troy Brouwer would love to return to the Blues

DALLAS, TX - MAY 07:  Troy Brouwer #36 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates with Robby Fabbri #15 of the St. Louis Blues after scoring a goal against Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars in the second period in Game Five of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 7, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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How much is Troy Brouwer‘s magical postseason run worth to the St. Louis Blues or some other team in free agency? How important is comfort and familiarity to Troy Brouwer?

Those seem to be the most important bigger-picture questions, although from the sound of Brouwer’s comments, nuts-and-bolts issues may decide his future in or outside of St. Louis.

Brouwer raved about his time with the Blues as the team spoke with the media to close out the 2015-16 season. The power forward seemed very happy about his living conditions and the way his style fits with this blue collar team.

Even so, Brouwer also admits that “it’s a business.”

That’s typical talk, yet it was more interesting when he went a little deeper, acknowledging that he understands that GM Doug Armstrong must ask questions about more than just the 2016-17 season.

His playoff production was fantastic, but a smart GM will realize that it probably wasn’t sustainable. Case in point, facts like these:

Even so, Brouwer brings considerable value if you keep expectations in check.

While he fell a little bit short this season with 18, he generally falls in the 20-goal range each year. He’s one of those players who can bring some grit to the table without totally taking away from your team in other ways.

Brouwer was one of the Blues’ top penalty-killing forwards to boot.

It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising for Brouwer to enjoy a healthy raise from his expired $3.67 million cap hit, yet you must wonder how much. Maybe most importantly, what kind of term is he looking for?

That last question might just be pivotal regarding a possible return to the Blues. Would he sacrifice some stability to try to make another run with St. Louis?

Even if he isn’t that old at 30, his rugged style might mean that this is one of his last opportunities for a big payday.

Both sides face a tough call, yet it sounds like a reunion is at least plausible.

Related

Tough questions await the Blues

David Backes would prefer to return, too

Trio of Pens forwards take maintenance day on Saturday

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shoots the puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins are about as healthy as you can be at this stage of the game. Outside of Trevor Daley (ankle), who’s done for the playoffs, the Pens have their desired roster at their disposal. That doesn’t mean that certain veterans don’t need a little bit of time to recuperate from the grind of the first three rounds.

On Saturday, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz didn’t participate in practice. Coach Mike Sullivan confirmed that each player had taken a maintenance day.

The 36-year-old Kunitz and 39-year-old Cullen have surely picked up some bumps and bruises throughout the postseason, while Bonino might still feel the effects of a shot block from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Not to worry Penguins fans, Sullivan says that each player should be available for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Related:

Pens enter Stanley Cup Final as favorites: online bookmaker

Need for speed: Sharks, Pens brace for ‘fast hockey’ in Stanley Cup Final

Pittsburgh’s run fueled by ‘Baby Pens’

‘No question,’ David Backes wants to stay in St. Louis

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 17:  David Backes #42 of the St. Louis Blues looks on in Game Two of the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 17, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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We don’t always get what we want…but we try.

In David Backes‘ case, he’d like to remain a member of the St. Louis Blues going forward. It might be difficult to make the numbers work, but the two sides will give it a go.

Backes, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, scored 21 goals and 45 points in 79 games in 2015-16. The 32-year-old added seven goals and 14 points in 20 postseason games before the Blues were eliminated by the Sharks in the Western Conference Final.

Re-signing their captain will likely interest the Blues, but can they make it work under the salary cap? St. Louis also has to re-sign RFA Jaden Schwartz and fellow UFA Troy Brouwer this off-season.

The Blues might have to pick between keeping Brouwer or Backes and that might not work in Backes’ favor. Brouwer is younger, and the fact that St. Louis gave up T.J. Oshie for him just last year could also play a factor in their decision.

Even if St. Louis doesn’t bring back role players like Steve Ott, Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall, they still need to have other players fill those spots on their third and fourth lines, which will eat into their limited cap space.

If they want to make room for Backes and/or Brouwer, the Blues may have to part ways with a defenseman like Kevin Shattenkirk (one year left at $4.25 million).

It looks like the Blues might be looking for a new captain in 2016-17.

‘It was a lot of ups and downs’: Pekka Rinne’s frustrating 2015-16 season

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The 2015-16 season won’t go down as the best year of Pekka Rinne‘s career. Rinne started the season off for the Nashville Predators relatively well, as he had a 10-2-3 record from the start of the year through Nov. 17. He had given up two goals or less in 10 of those 15 decisions and it looked like he would have another fantastic year.

That’s when things fell apart in a hurry.Rinne went on to lose seven of his next eight games. His once promising season was fading.

The 33-year-old’s season wasn’t all bad. He finished with a 34-21-10 record, but he had a mediocre 2.48 goals-against-average and .908 save percentage. His goals-against-average ranked 19th among goalies who played 40 games or more and his save percentage ranked 26th.

It’s safe to say the consistency was lacking.

In the end, his stick paid the price (top).

“It was a lot of ups and downs,” said Rinne, per the Tennessean. “Personally, I wanted to be better during the regular season. I always have high expectations for myself. I thought that it was hard to get consistency going on throughout the season. I feel like I had a lot of good games, but then (an average game would follow) or something like that.

“It was frustrating at times. Hopefully, my goal is to raise my level of game to where I need it to be and where I want it to be.”

Rinne’s numbers didn’t improve in the playoffs (7-7, 2.63, .906), but he did feel more comfortable about his game overall.

“I’m personally happy with how the season ended for me,” Rinne said. “I thought that I played my best hockey in (the) playoffs. I was able to raise my level of game and the way I played.”

Is Rinne on the decline or was this just a blip on the radar? We’ll find out, but don’t expect a change of scenery coming for the veteran. He probably won’t be leaving Nashville anytime soon. He has three years remaining on his contract at $7 million per year and the Predators don’t exactly have someone ready to take over.