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Defending champs Finland sent to relegation round of World Junior Tournament

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One year ago Finland took home its second gold medal in three years at the World Junior championships thanks in large part to its incredible trio of Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho, the top-three scorers in the tournament.

With all three players now in the NHL (Laine and Puljujarvi were two of the top-four picks in the 2016 draft to Winnipeg and Edmonton respectively; Aho, a second-round pick in 2015, is having a wonderful rookie season in Carolina) the roster for the 2017 tournament was obviously not going to be quite as good.

Other than maybe Canada, there probably is not another junior hockey program in the world that can lose a trio like that and come back with a team that is anywhere near as loaded.

But nobody expected Finland to be in the position it finds itself in now.

Thanks to Switzerland’s come-from-behind 5-4 shootout win against Denmark on Friday evening, Finland not only failed to advance to the quaterfinal round of the 2017 tournament, but it now finds itself in the relegation round of the tournament where it will have to play a best-of-three series against Latvia for the right to return to the tournament in 2018.

The loser gets relegated to Division I Group A for next year.

It is a stunning fall for Finland and marks the first time in the history of the tournament that a country has won the gold medal one year, and then had to play in the relegation round in the next tournament (via Mike Morreale of NHL.com).

Again: This is a program that has won this tournament in two of the past three seasons.

To this point Finland has yet to win a game in this year’s tournament, losing a pair of one-goal games to the Czech Republic and a surprising Denmark team, and then losing to Sweden 3-1 on Thursday.

All of that put Finland into a situation on Friday where it needed Denmark to beat Switzerland to set up what would have been a huge game on Saturday against Switzerland that could have helped Finland advance out of the preliminary round and avoid potential relegation.

For a while it seemed as if Finland was going to get that help. Denmark actually held a pair of three-goal leads on Friday evening against Switzerland (3-0 and 4-1) but could not hold on as the Swiss rallied to send the game to a shootout, where it was able to win it 1-0 thanks to a goal from Marco Miranda.

Finland’s preliminary round game against Switzerland on Saturday is now completely meaningless.

The big issue for Finland this year was a stunning lack of offense that saw the team score just four goals in its first three games. Finland scored 18 goals through the first three games a year ago, with 10 of those goals belonging to Laine, Puljujarvi, Aho and Mikko Rantonen.

All four players are currently in the NHL, with Laine currently sitting among the league’s top goal scorers.

Without NHL players, Olympic tournament is ‘wide open’

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When Willie Desjardins coached Canada’s 2010 world junior team stacked with future NHL players Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and goaltenders Jake Allen and Martin Jones, it took a wild final game with John Carlson scoring in overtime to win the gold medal for the United States.

Just like Canada was the most talented team back then, Russia is likely to have that role at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Desjardins isn’t concerned about that.

”In this tournament, anybody can win,” Desjardins said.

Goodbye, NHL players. Hello, unpredictability.

No NHL participation for the first time since 1994 threatens to upset the traditional world hockey order after Canada has won the past three best-on-best tournaments: the 2016 World Cup, 2014 Sochi Olympics and 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Russia is considered the favorite because it has former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov, though Finland could make gold its sixth medal in the past five Games or Sweden could win for the first time since 2006.

Coach Tony Granato’s American team was put together with players from European professional leagues, the NCAA and American Hockey League.

”This Olympics is wide open for a lot of reasons,” Granato said. ”Russia’s got the most talented players in the world. They’re going to have the team that steps on the ice with the most talented players. Does that make them the best team for two weeks? No. We all know that. We all know how sports works. All you’re looking for is an opportunity to make the most and be the best that you can be for that period of time.”

Because it’s such a short tournament with three pool-play games, a qualifying round and then quarterfinals, it could come down to which team gels first after limited preparation time. Or maybe another goaltender will pull off what Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis almost did when making 55 saves to give Canada a scare in the quarterfinals in Sochi.

”The goaltending matters, too, in an event like this,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. ”It always matters, but I think in this one, the underdog – if you have an elite goalie – can really do some damage.”

Who’s the underdog? It’s fair to say host South Korea, in its first Olympics in men’s hockey, fits that bill, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany and Norway.

Yet being in a group with Slovenia, Slovakia and Russia is no easy task for the U.S., which boasts 38-year-old semi-retired captain Brian Gionta as its most experienced player. Granato said the U.S. ”has lots of pieces that other teams and countries don’t know about” and wonders if his team will be overlooked.

Mistake-prone play seems likely, though Gionta doesn’t think there will be any lack of sizzle.

”I know there’s been some talk that not having the NHL guys in, you don’t have your high-skilled guys,” Gionta said. ”I think that’s a bad representation of the people that are going over there and competing in these games. There’s a lot of great hockey players.”

ALL EYES ON DAHLIN

One of the most dynamic and offensively talented players is also the youngest: Sweden defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who’s projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft in June. Dahlin has 11 points in 29 games playing against grown men in the Swedish Hockey League and had six points in seven games at the world juniors. He’s just 17.

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?

When the NHL announced it was out of these Olympics, executives from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada were quick to say every team would have 25 great stories. There are players on almost every team who are familiar because they played in the NHL at one point. Most of the rosters are made up of journeymen plying their trade in pro leagues in Europe, such as Czech Republic captain Martin Erat, Germany’s Christian Ehrhoff and Canada’s Ben Scrivens. Americans Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway, Ryan Donato and Will Borgen are currently playing college hockey.

”The tournament in general is going to be built with teams with lots of guys that this is the greatest event for them and they didn’t necessarily think they were going to get this opportunity,” Canada GM Sean Burke said.

BIG ICE

If the Sochi Games proved anything, it was that the international-sized ice that’s 15 feet wider than NHL rinks doesn’t create more offense. The U.S. and Canada built rosters with the bigger ice in mind, prioritizing skating and mobility and playing a more European style. That doesn’t mean European teams won’t have an advantage, but it won’t be such a stark change as when North American NHL players need a few games to get used to it.

OAR PRESSURE

The Olympic Athletes from Russia team is a favorite to win gold, which would be the first since the Unified Team in 1992. But Russia hasn’t medaled since 2002, including a disappointing showing on home ice four years ago. The chance to draw all its players from the Kontinental Hockey League should benefit Russia, which has won four of the past 10 world hockey championships. But something about this stage has made Russia play like less than the sum of its parts before, which makes even a star-studded team beatable.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

The Buzzer: Pacioretty continues hot streak

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Players of the Night:

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens: Here’s a name you haven’t seen often in these parts this season. But Pacioretty had two goals tonight, the opener for the Canadiens and the game-winner with 1:18 left in the third period to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He also added an assist on Montreal’s other goal. Truth be told, Pacioretty has been sizzling lately with six goals and an assist in his past six games.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson had a quiet night for the most part until the third period, but he was stellar when called upon and made 23 saves, including a second-period beauty (which you will see below) to help his team to a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night:

James Neal had all the moves to help the Vegas Golden Knights secure a point on the road in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.

John Gibson got just enough on this puck to redirect it off the post and out for quite the save:

Factoid of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Panthers 4, Golden Knights 3 (OT)

Canadiens 3, Capitals 2

Ducks 2, Kings 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Henrique, Kesler too much for Quick, Kings in 2-1 Ducks win

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Jonathan Quick did all he could.

The posts behind him helped on a couple occasions, but Quick was everything the Los Angeles Kings needed to break out of their five-game losing streak, which they entered Friday wearing like a ball and chain.

But while Quick was solid in the crease, making 29 saves, the men in front of him couldn’t replicate their goalie’s performance in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

The Kings have now lost six straight and just two of their past 10 and are tied with four teams, including the Ducks, who sit on 53 points and just outside the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Ducks-Kings rivalry has become quite the grind ’em out slugfest over time, and despite their recent downward spiral, the Kings weren’t going to roll over and die when the puck dropped, even if they played 24 hours earlier.

This rivalry doesn’t allow for one team to not show up, despite whatever mitigating circumstances may be available.

And neither team was giving the other any allowances, evidenced by a 0-0 scoreline after 40 minutes.

The Ducks struck first in the third frame as Adam Henrique finally willed a puck behind Quick, who had puzzled Anaheim’s offense for 42 minutes and change.

Henrique’s individual effort on the goal began a few seconds earlier as he won a foot race to the puck to get it into the Ducks’ zone, dove to make sure it stayed there and they got up and went to the net, where he picked up a loose puck that and put it in the back of the net for a 1-0 lead at the 17:55 mark.

That lead was shortlived, however.

The Kings struck back two-and-a-half minutes later as some extended offensive zone time by the Kings resulted in Alex Iafallo flicking a puck up and over John Gibson off a rebound to ruin his shutout bid at 4:48.

The Ducks would get the final say.

Jakob Silfverberg‘s excellent forecheck kept the Kings from clearing the puck out of their zone.

The puck found its way to the point, where Francois Beauchemin unleashed a high point shot that was redirected down and under Quick by Ryan Kesler for the eventual game-winner.

Gibson’s night may have been a little quieter than his counterpart 200-feet away, but he was on point when he needed to be, making 23 of 24 saves, including getting just enough on Iafallo’s second-period shot to steer it off the post and out to keep the game 0-0 at that point.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings vs Anaheim Ducks

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Los Angeles Kings

Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Tanner PearsonTrevor LewisTyler Toffoli

Alex IafalloNick ShoreMarian Gaborik

Kyle CliffordTorrey MitchellAndy Andreoff

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty

Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez

Kevin Gravel– Christian Folin

Starting Goalie: Darcy Kuemper

NHL on NBCSN: Kings look to end losing streak vs. Ducks

Anaheim Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting Goalie: John Gibson