Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 14 - United States v Canada

Five challenges for Canada, which still has a job to do

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1. Get refocused, and don’t be too confident

Not to take anything away from Friday’s big win over the United States, but that’s in the past. Sunday is the focus now.

The Swedes have flown largely under the radar this tournament, but after an uneven start and the loss of Henrik Zetterberg, they seem to be hitting their stride just in time. Like Canada, they still haven’t lost a game.

“We weren’t one of the favorites to make the finals, but we believed in ourselves, and it’s a great feeling to be here now,” said Daniel Alfredsson after beating Finland in the semifinals.

Alfredsson must not have read many pre-Olympic predictions, because a lot of people did, in fact, pick his team to make the finals. Even without Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin, the Swedes are still plenty dangerous up front, and their blue line is matched in depth and talent only by the Canadians. And, of course, they’ve got…

2. Henrik Lundqvist

Remember when he was struggling with the Rangers? Yeah, he’s not struggling anymore. Lundqvist came into the Olympics playing well, and he’s stayed hot in Sochi. Only six shots have beaten him in five games, for a 1.20 goals-against average and .951 save percentage.

If not for Lundqvist, the Swedes may very well have lost to Switzerland in the preliminaries. The one goal he did allow versus the Finns wasn’t a good one, but otherwise he was perfect.

“I gave up a tough one there,” he said. “I definitely thought it was an icing so I kind of relaxed and I just made a bad move.”

But, “If you take away that one goal I feel like I played a really solid game, I did the things I need to do.”

3. Start burying some chances

source:  This goes hand-in-hand with point No. 2. Despite all the goal-scoring forwards the Canadians brought with them to Sochi, only four have actually scored. Jeff Carter has three, Jame Benn two, and Patrick Sharp and Ryan Getzlaf each have one.

Against the Americans — just like against the Norwegians, Latvians, and Finns — Canada had lots of shots and not many goals. Granted, Jonathan Quick was a big part of that, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Corey Perry, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews, Rick Nash, and Patrice Bergeron have yet to bury one this tournament.

Now, clearly, the most important thing for Canada is defense. Mike Babcock has said time and again that his team’s only job is to score one more than the opposition. So far it’s done that. But shutting out the Swedes won’t be easy. In part because…

4. Stay out of the box

Sweden’s power play has been deadly, scoring seven times on 19 chances. Defenseman Erik Karlsson has three of those seven PP goals, including the game-winner versus Finland, a blast from the point that beat Kari Lehtonen.

Canada has been fairly disciplined to this point, going shorthanded 16 times in five games. But Sweden has the kind of skilled players that tend to draw penalties, and the Swedes as a whole should possess the puck more than some of the sides Canada has faced so far.

“Our coach (Par Marts) keeps telling us ‘go for it, go for it, go for it’ even when we feel we shouldn’t be going for it sometimes,” said Lundqvist. “He encourages our players to use their skill. As long as we use the puck well it’s good for us.”

5. The big ice

What, you thought you’d heard the last of the big-ice factor? Sorry, but when a country hasn’t won Olympic gold outside of North America since 1952, it’s a factor until it bumps the slump. Especially against Sweden, the defending world champs and the last winner of Olympic gold on the big ice, eight years ago in Turin.

“They’re incredibly stingy defensively; they’re hard to play against,” Matt Duchene said of the Swedes, per NHL.com. “They like to slow the game down, they like to re-group. They almost play the game like soccer on this big ice. It’s a chess match, it’s going to be a chess match. I have a great appreciation for Swedish hockey after playing in that league and playing against them last year in the [world championship] and other times.”

For Frederik Andersen, the spotlight’s on

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 21:  Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs speaks with the media during a press availability on June 21, 2016 at the Encore Ballroom in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 2016 NHL Award Ceremony will by held on June 22 at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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James Reimer, Jonathan Bernier, Ben Scrivens and Jonas Gustavsson.

Over the last half decade, those four were tasked with the responsibility of being Toronto’s No. 1 goalie. Reimer was the lead dog, with 153 starts over five years, followed by Bernier (140 over three), Gustavsson (96 over three) and Scrivens (28 over two).

As the figures suggest, those four had plenty in common. They each spent multiple years in Toronto, and had a shot at the No. 1 gig.

Now they have something else in common, too.

None of ’em play in Toronto anymore.

It’s been a revolving door — one pushed by fans and media, some would argue — and the Leafs tried to halt it this summer, striking a bold move to finally solidify their goaltending position.

Frederik Andersen, the lanky Dane that rose to prominence in Anaheim, was acquired for a pair of high picks, then quickly signed to a lucrative five-year, $25 million deal.

That trade was profound, and so was the payday. The contract nearly quintupled what Andersen made on his previous pact, and made him one of the highest-paid players on the active roster.

The Leafs insisted it was money well spent.

“Whenever you have the opportunity to acquire a goaltender who has proven to have success in the playoffs, is at the prime age, has the reputation on and off the ice that he has, and the players love playing in front of him — I don’t know how you cannot try to acquire a goaltender like this,” GM Lou Lamoriello said upon acquiring Andersen. “We’ve acquired a 6-foot-4 goaltender who has athleticism.

“Right now we’re extremely comfortable with our goaltending.”

And it’s true — Andersen has all the attributes of a quality No. 1. He’s shouldered a heavy workload before, making 53 starts during the ’14-15 campaign, followed by another 16 in the playoffs as Anaheim advanced to Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.

He’s also in the “sweet spot” as far as development goes. Andersen had plenty of seasoning in Europe and the American League before making his NHL debut at 24.

Now he’s a veteran of three full campaigns, with 125 regular season and nearly 30 playoff games on his resume.

And he only turns 27 this October.

Those are the positives.

How about some negatives?

For starters, he’s going from a pretty good team (the Ducks finished sixth in the NHL last year) to a pretty bad one (the Leafs, as you might’ve heard, finished dead last). He’s also going from a relatively laid back market to one of the most frenzied in the league.

Canadian cities can be tough on goalies, something that Reimer, Bernier, Gustavsson and Scrivens all experienced to some degree during their times in Toronto.

It happens elsewhere, too.

“It takes a certain temperament to play in Canada,” former NHL goalie and current TSN analyst Jamie McLennan told the National Post. “Roberto Luongo was a star in Florida, goes to Vancouver and stars there and then the fans turn on him because he doesn’t deliver a Cup and then leaves and it’s like, ‘Oh geez, we lost a really good goalie.'”

So, how will Andersen adjust to the spotlight? The Leafs did well to take some pressure off by inking veteran Jhonas Enroth to be the backup, but Enroth is exactly that — a backup.

Toronto fans will see how Andersen deals with increased attention this September, as he projects to be Team Europe’s No. 1 for the World Cup of Hockey — which, of course, will be played in Andersen’s new home rink, the ACC.

It’ll be like a dress rehearsal prior to the live show.

But for Andersen, the stakes might feel a little bit higher.

Poll: Will the Leafs have a captain this year?

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock stands on the bench during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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There are six teams currently without a captain — Carolina, Edmonton, Florida, Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto — and of the six, it’s the latter that seems furthest from filling the role.

Back in April, head coach Mike Babcock said he didn’t expect the Leafs to have a captain this season. That news hardly came as a surprise — Toronto had just wrapped a difficult first year of what figures to be a lengthy rebuild, and didn’t seem to have any leading candidates to inherit the “C” from Dion Phaneuf, who was traded to Ottawa in February.

Of course, things have changed since then.

The biggest, by far, was Toronto landing phenom Auston Matthew with the first overall pick at the draft. GM Lou Lamoriello also locked in two of the club’s better young players — Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly — to matching six-year deals, and added a physical veteran presence in free agency by signing former Islander Matt Martin.

All of this makes for a different dynamic in the dressing room, but will it impact the captaincy?

Hard to say.

At first glance, the Leafs still seem to lack a leading candidate, at least for the present. If Lamoriello and team president Brendan Shanahan wanted to go the veteran route, they could anoint Brooks Laich or Matt Hunwick as a placeholder, though neither projects to play a significant role on the team beyond this year and into the future.

Rielly could be the guy but, at 22, he’d be awfully young.

The same can be said of Matthews, though many do expect him to eventually captain the Leafs. But asking him to shoulder that responsibility now — as an 18-year-old rookie — would be the most anti-Lamoriello move of all time, so you can rule that out.

Anyway, here’s how this will work. The poll will be a straight yes-no and, if you vote yes, put your pick for captain in the comments section.

Welcome back: Flames sign Higgins to camp PTO

Chris Higgins
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Chris Higgins is back in Cowtown.

On Tuesday, the Flames announced that Higgins would be attending training camp on a professional tryout, bringing him back to the organization he played part of the 2009-10 campaign with.

Higgins, 33, had spent the last six years in Vancouver. His stint with the Canucks included some quality highs — a trip to the ’11 Stanley Cup Final, and an 18-goal, 43-point season the year following — but ended on a sour note last spring when, after GM Jim Benning failed to orchestrate a trade, Higgins was placed on waivers and spent time in AHL Utica.

All told, Higgins finished the campaign with three goals and four points in 33 contests.

In June, the Canucks bought out the last of his four-year, $10 million deal.

Higgins has played in Calgary before — as mentioned above — but that’s not his only connection to the organization. The Flames’ new head coach, Glen Gulutzan, was the assistant in Vancouver for the last three years and worked closely with Higgins (who had a good season in Gulutzan’s first year with the Canucks, scoring 17 goals and 39 points).

 

 

Under Pressure: Auston Matthews

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: (l-r) Lou Lamoriello and  Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs attend round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s the collective, really.

There’s no single reason why Auston Matthews was our clear cut choice for today’s “Under Pressure” post.

No single reason, because there are so many reasons.

There was the pre-draft hype, which was off the charts. There was Toronto tanking to get the No. 1 overall pick — or, as team president Brendan Shanahan put it, earning the pick “the hard way.”

There were the names, too.

Matthews is now linked to Patrick Kane, after becoming the first American to go No. 1 overall since Chicago took Kane nine years ago. Matthew is also now forever linked to Leafs legend Wendel Clark — Toronto’s last No. 1 overall pick, taken all the way back in 1985.

Then, there’s his pedigree.

And with that pedigree comes privilege.

Before he ever played a second of NHL hockey, Matthews was named to Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey — ahead of the likes of Max Domi, Boone Jenner and Alex Galchenyuk, the latter a 30-goal scorer and already a veteran of nearly 300 NHL contests.

Pundits have already slotted Matthews into a top-two center role in Toronto, one that will come with all the requisite power play time befitting a special offensive talent. As a result, expectations for this year are sky high. A recent NHL.com projection said the 60-point plateau should be within reach, and think pieces about how other rookies won’t just concede the Calder.

Smartly, but perhaps futilely, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello is trying to shield Matthew from some of pressure that comes along with being, y’know, the savior of a team in one of the league’s most storied markets.

“I don’t think there’s any player that’s going to be the face of this franchise,” Lamoriello said at the draft, when asked if Matthews would be exactly that. “The logo will be the face of the franchise.”

Lamoriello went on to say that when “you’re taking an 18-year-old and expect him to do wonders, it’s not fair.”

No, it’s not fair.

But it is the reality.