Despite no medals and ‘sour feeling,’ Sochi was not a complete bust for the United States

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SOCHI, Russia — It’s hard to look at the positives. Really hard, right now.

So soon after such an embarrassing defeat for the United States men’s hockey team, it’s easier to focus on, say, the comments of Jonathan Quick and agree there was “no reason” for the Americans to “show up and not piss a drop” against Finland.

Except, of course, for the fact there totally was a reason. That being last night’s devastating 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals — a loss that meant there would be no revenge for 2010 and no match-up with Sweden for gold. For a team that came halfway around the world expressly for just that — a shot at gold — can anyone be surprised that, when mere bronze was on the line, the effort wasn’t there?

“Losing that game (to Canada), it took a lot out of us,” said coach Dan Bylsma, admitting what was so obvious to anyone watching today’s contest at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

No, Quick’s not wrong that the professionals on the U.S. team “play back-to-backs all year long” in the NHL. However, we’re not talking about a loss in New Jersey, with a chance to regroup the next night on Long Island. This is the Olympics, and these guys are only human. They wanted gold so badly, and they felt they had the team to get it.

Maybe nobody wants to hear it right now, but despite the way the Games ended, there were positives for the Americans to take out of them.

Take Cam Fowler. Just 22 years old, he got his first taste of Olympic experience, on a blue line that also featured youngsters Kevin Shattenkirk, 25, John Carlson, 24, Ryan McDonagh, 24, and Justin Faulk, 21.

“Personally, as a player it can only help for me,” said Fowler. “I proved to myself that I can play and I can compete with the best hockey players in the world, and that’s good for me going on in my career.”

And that wasn’t all he picked up.

“I think I’ve learned a lot too about disappointment, and just the overall feeling you have when you let a lot of people down,” he said. “That’s a tough thing to take.”

Veteran Finnish defenseman Sami Salo was asked how his team was able to get motivated for the bronze-medal game after losing in the semis to a fierce rival, just like the Americans did.

Salo said it was all about what had happened in previous Olympics, and the wisdom gained.

“We had a similar situation in Vancouver,” he said. “Losing to the U.S. in the semifinal by big numbers (6-1), then coming back strong against the Slovaks in the bronze game. We were really looking forward to giving something back after losing to the U.S. in Vancouver.”

He added: “It’s just the experience of this group. We had a brief meeting after [losing to Sweden) that you can’t worry about that. Our goal coming to this competition was to get a medal. We still had one game left, one chance to get that medal, and we just regrouped and…unbelievable.”

There is still hope for U.S. hockey at the world’s highest level. Great hope, in fact. If the NHL commits to South Korea in 2018, just think of the blue-liners the Americans could roll out. Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba are only 19. If all goes to plan, both should be ready for the big time by then, joining Ryan Suter and some or all of the guys mentioned above, plus other strong candidates.

At the moment, Canada and Sweden have the best collection of defensemen on the planet. It’s no coincidence those two countries will be meeting Sunday for gold. The blue line matters. A lot.

For now, though, what happened the past two nights is tough to accept.

“If we’re honest about this, these last two games, we’ve had better performances in the tank and it didn’t come to the forefront,” said forward David Backes.

“That’s the disappointing thing. If we played our butts off and were ousted, or had better teams best us, I think you can live with that. But when it’s less than stellar performances, especially in a tournament like this, it is going to be a sour, sour feeling.”

So, what should Blackhawks do without Corey Crawford?

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Look, it’s quite possible that Corey Crawford will be back this season for the Chicago Blackhawks.

As of this moment, there are more questions than answers, with semantic arguments bubbling up about whether he’s dealing with concussion issues, vertigo, or what. Either way, it’s an unfortunate situation.

Let’s say the very bad happens and the Blackhawks won’t get their crucial goalie back as they try to claw their way into a playoff spot in the competitive Central Division. What should GM Stan Bowman do?

Here are a few scenarios.

Stay put

We can debate where Crawford ranks among the NHL’s best goalies (is he a top-five guy, top 10, elite?), but it’s fair to say that he’s had one of the toughest gigs. It’s a good thing that he produced a fantastic .929 save percentage this season, because Chicago’s defense isn’t what it once was. They’re tied for the eight-most shots allowed per game (32.6) and are in the top 10 in most high-danger chances allowed (via Natural Stat Trick).

Jeff Glass is a great story, and he’s provided very acceptable backup-level work alongside Anton Forsberg (Glass’s save percentage is .910, Forsberg’s at .911).

That’s heartening, but the bottom line is that the Blackhawks rank at the bottom of the Central with this mix of Crawford’s great goaltending and respectable work from Glass/Forsberg. They may only sink with Glass and Forsberg, and that’s assuming that those two don’t fall apart altogether.

The more uncomfortable question is: maybe they should just “Take the L” and regroup for next season? As is, it’s tough to imagine the Blackhawks making the playoffs, or making any noise if they do make it.

If they would rather not punt this season, then a trade would be the best option to explore.

Go after an obvious guy

The Detroit Red Wings want to move Petr Mrazek. If Crawford goes on IR, Chicago might not even need Detroit to retain much/any of Mrazek’s $4M, possibly making the asking price more reasonable.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the best of Mrazek (2015-16), but he’s only made 13 appearances in 2017-18, as the Red Wings still haven’t gotten the whole “rebuild” memo yet. Or at least they haven’t read it.

Mrazek would stand as a “high-risk, high-reward” acquisition. You could probably put Buffalo Sabres starter Robin Lehner under that heading, assuming Buffalo would let him go. Logically, you’d think Lehner would be more costly, considering his sneaky-strong individual stats.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli notes that San Jose Sharks backup Aaron Dell might draw some trade interest, with some looking at him as the next backup who might take the next step to become a starter. Chicago could provide Dell with quite the audition in that regard.

The road less traveled

Actually, Dell stands as a template for the type of guys who the Blackhawks might want to at least inquire about: backups who might not be long for their current teams.

Philipp Grubauer is one name that stands out. With a solid .916 save percentage this season and a sparkling .922 mark for his career (81 regular-season games), Grubauer’s excelled when given chances. The problem is that he plays on the same team as Braden Holtby, which means that those chances seldom come.

Grubauer is a pending RFA, and he’s likely to be too expensive for the Washington Capitals after this season. Maybe the Blackhawks can make it worth Washington’s while to acknowledge that likelihood, and get something for him rather than letting him go for less later?

The Blue Jackets still have Joonas Korpisalo through 2018-19, with his contract expiring at the same time as that of Sergei Bobrovsky, so a conversation about “Korpi” likely wouldn’t last too long. Still, why not ask?

One other off-the-beaten path consideration would be Antti Raanta.

The Blackhawks and Coyotes aren’t shy about making moves together, and Raanta’s debut season hasn’t gone as planned in Arizona. The Coyotes might not have necessarily soured on Raanta, but if they decide to go in a different direction in net in the future, maybe it would be worth moving him?

Chicago obviously has experience with Raanta, so that could make it a more comfortable transition as a “rental,” too.

***

Look, the Blackhawks struggled with Crawford in the lineup, playing at an outstanding level. There’s no guarantee that landing a goalie would make the difference, even if that netminder generated great work and didn’t cost a ton in a trade.

On the other hand, this Blackhawks core isn’t getting any younger, while the Central is loaded with teams that have bright futures.

For all we know, this might be one of this team’s last, best shots. GM Stan Bowman needs to turn over every stone to try to find an answer, whether that ends up coming down to making a big move or accepting the painful status quo.

Personally, I’d rotate between grumbling and crying.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Canadiens at Bruins

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Montreal Canadiens

Max PaciorettyPaul ByronCharles Hudon

Artturi LehkonenTomas PlekanecBrendan Gallagher

Alex GalchenyukJacob De La RoseJonathan Drouin

Nicolas DeslauriersByron FroeseDaniel Carr

Karl AlznerJeff Petry

Jordie BennJakub Jerabek

Victor Mete — David Schlemko

Starting goalie: Carey Price

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Boston Bruins

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Spooner

Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes

Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

Bruins anthem singer Rene Rancourt and his fist pumps to retire after this season

Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images
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For over 40 years, the Boston Bruins have featured Rene Rancourt as their anthem singer. On Wednesday, the team announced that the colorful crooner will be hanging up his microphone after this season.

The 78-year-old Rancourt, a trained opera singer, actually began his anthem singing career performing before Boston Red Sox games. He was brought on board by the Bruins after a performance prior to Game 6 of the 1975 World Series — The Carlton Fisk Homerun Game — when he subbed in for Kate Smith.

“I knew practically nothing about hockey,” Rancourt told Joshua Kloke of Vice Sports in 2016. “I didn’t even know where the Boston Garden was.”

Quite the character, Rancourt quickly became a staple before games and over time became known for his fist pumps, which energize crowds nightly, and his salute. The fist pumps were inspired by former Bruin Randy Burridge’s “stump pump” celebration after goals.

If you were lucky, the wedding or other event you were attending would be interrupted by Rancourt’s appearance to belt out a couple of tunes. It was also an annual tradition to see him sing Christmas carols during Bruins games every December.

Rancourt will be honored during the Bruins’ final regular season game on April 8. It will be interesting to see how many fist pumps his pulls off during his last appearance at TD Garden, whenever that may happen this spring.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Six NHL rookies that are flying under the radar this season

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The NHL’s rookie class for the 2017-18 season is an impressive one with what is sure to be a tightly contested Calder Trophy race at the top.

Forwards Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), and Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), as well as defensemen Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) are all making tremendous impacts for their teams this season and are clearly the cream of the crop when it comes to first-year players around the league.

One of them (most likely Barzal or Boeser) is going to take home the Calder Trophy this season.

But they are not the only rookies that are standing out this season.

Let’s take a look at five more whose performances have slid under the radar. None of these players will end up winning the rookie of the year award this season, but they have been key contributors to their teams so far and deserve some credit for it.

Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins

The Bruins are a really intriguing team in the East. They have three of the best forwards in the league at the top of their lineup, a goalie that is capable of carrying the team when he gets hot, and they have rebuilt their defense over the past couple of years. They are also getting a ton of contributions from rookies. McAvoy has already blossomed into a top-pairing defenseman, and Jake DeBrusk, a 2015 first-round pick, is currently on a 20-goal pace.

They also have Heinen, a 22-year-old forward that is getting his first full-time look in the NHL.

Currently he is fourth among all NHL rookies in scoring with 38 points, while his 0.82 point per game average is third behind only Barzal and Boeser.

He has been especially good on a line with veteran forward David Backes. When Backes and Heinen are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins are controlling 60 percent of the shot attempts and outscoring teams by a 14-10 margin (via NaturalStatTrick).

Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche

After choosing to not sign with the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Devils, Kerfoot became an unrestricted free agent this past summer and ended up landing an opportunity with the Colorado Avalanche. It has paid off immediately for everyone.

The Avalanche are in surprising contention for a playoff spot this season, even after trading Matt Duchene, thanks in large part to the breakout year from Nathan MacKinnon.

Another key contributor this season has been the 23-year-old Kerfoot.

In his debut season he’s already recorded 30 points in 40 games and has been one of the team’s top point producers.

The Avalanche have been a disaster on the ice in recent seasons, but they are exceeding expectations this season and their top-four scorers (MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Kerfoot) are all age 25 or younger. Landeskog is the only one of that quartet that is over the age 23. And they also still have 19-year-old Tyson Jost.

There is still a pretty good young core here to build around.

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are looking absolutely terrifying this season — and for future seasons given their contract situations — with a bunch of superstars at the top of the lineup and a bunch of young, talented, cheap players sprinkled around them. We mentioned Sergachev up above as one of the Calder Trophy leaders, and they also have second-year forward Brayden Point lighting up the scoreboard (Point, by the way, is the third-leading scorer on the team).

Then there’s Yanni Gourde.

Gourde barely makes the rookie cut this season because he turned 26 in December and had played in 20 games a season ago, but by NHL rules he does still qualify as a rookie.

The Lightning have excelled in recent seasons by building around talented, undersized forwards that are capable of putting the puck in the net and Gourde is just the latest example. Listed at only 5-9, 172 pounds, Gourde is one of the smallest players in the league. Before getting his first real shot in the NHL he had been a productive player at pretty much every level of hockey that he played at.

He earned a regular spot with the Lightning this season and has proven to be a valuable addition. Along with his offensive production (14 goals, 16 assists in 44 games) he has also been a key contributor to their penalty kill.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins weren’t expecting to need Jarry this season, but when the Antti Niemi experiment proved to be a failure their plans had to change a little. So far, he has been excellent as Matt Murray‘s backup and has filled in admirably for him while Murray has been away from the team dealing with a personal family matter. With Murray again away from the team following his father’s passing this week Jarry is going to get even more opportunities to play in the immediate future.

So far this season Jarry is 9-3-2 in his 15 appearances and has a .923 save percentage that is tops among rookie goaltenders (minimum 15 games played).

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets have become one of the NHL’s most dynamic offenses with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers are all shining at the top of the lineup.

They also have 2015 first-round pick Kyle Connor starting to make an impact.

Connor is currently third among all rookie forwards in goals scored, but is second only to Boeser when it comes to goals per game.

He is currently on what would be a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

The Jets’ rebuild has been slow — painfully slow, and probably slower than it needed to be — but their patience and desire to build almost entirely from within is finally starting to be rewarded with this group of forwards.

If they can keep getting solid goaltending they are going to be a tough team to knock out of the playoffs.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

The Devils are another team that is getting significant contributions from rookies this season.

Currently the Devils are in a playoff position in the Metropolitan Division and are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011-12. Leading the way is a trio of rookies that are all among the team’s top-four scorers. Included in that group are No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier and free agent signing Will Butcher.

It should not be much of a surprise that Hischier has played well and made an immediate impact. That is what you hope — and expect — from a No. 1 overall pick. Butcher has been outstanding and is currently the team’s top possession player.

The biggest surprise out of the group, though, might be 19-year-old Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016.

Through the Devils’ first 42 games, Bratt is second on the team in scoring, is seventh among all rookies, and is playing close to two minutes on the penalty kill per night … as a 19-year-old rookie.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.