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USA, Canada preparing for NHL-less Olympics very differently

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Former Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins turned down offers to work in the NHL this season so he could be behind the bench for Canada at the Winter Olympics.

Tony Granato gets to keep his day job at the University of Wisconsin and still coach the United States.

Six months from the start of the Olympics in South Korea, picking coaches is just one of the many contrasts between Hockey Canada and USA Hockey. Their rosters will be more similar to each other’s than Russia’s star-studded group, but the two North American countries are embarking on drastically different approaches ahead of the February tournament that will be the first without NHL players since 1994.

Canada is taking no risks with its thorough preparation as it tries to win a third consecutive gold medal, while the United States sees a benefit in a less-is-more approach in trying to return to the podium.

“There’s no guarantee, so that’s why you get yourself prepared as well as you can,” Canada assistant general manager Martin Brodeur said.

Read more: Minor leaguers on NHL contracts can’t go to Olympics

The best way to prepare is a matter of opinion.

The U.S. and Canada will each rely heavily on professionals playing in European leagues and mix in minor leaguers on American Hockey League contracts . While Russia will likely have a team with former NHL stars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov , who went home to join the Kontinental Hockey League, Canada has former NHL players like Derek Roy, Max Talbot, Mason Raymond, Kevin Klein and Ben Scrivens to look to in Europe. The U.S. has Nathan Gerbe, Keith Aucoin and former AHL goalies David Leggio and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux.

Because there are fewer experienced American players in Europe, the U.S. is far more likely to call on recent world junior and current college players, skewing younger at skill positions. Boston University’s Jordan Greenway and Denver’s Troy Terry, who led the U.S. to gold at the world juniors last year, could be among the selections.

Canada GM Sean Burke began preparing a year ago for a no-NHL Olympics, scouting to find potential fits to fill the positions previously held by Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty and Carey Price. U.S. GM Jim Johannson began touching base with players on a serious level in June, after roster rules were set . He doesn’t plan to put a lot of mileage into in-person scouting over the next couple of months.

“In many cases we know what those players are,” said Johannson, who has been in charge of recent U.S. world junior and world championship teams. “I don’t think our goal is prior to December go running all across the world to see what do these guys got. Let their season get going.”

Canada has already gotten started as a group on the ice, playing this week in the Sochi Hockey Open and taking another group of prospective Olympians to St. Petersburg, Russia, next week for the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov. Those are the first two of five tournaments in which Canada will participate before the final 25-man team goes to Pyeongchang, along with the Karjala Cup in Finland in November, the Channel One Cup in Russia in mid-December and the Spengler Cup in Switzerland at the end of December.

Vice president of hockey operations Scott Salmond said Hockey Canada is “not starting at ground zero” and plans to fine-tune its Olympic roster over the next several months. That’s not all that will come together in those five tournaments.

“We will have a better understanding of the players we have, what system we can put in and adjustments we need before it starts,” said Brodeur, who serves as assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues.

Burke believes he’ll have a good idea of what Canada’s Olympic team will look like by the Moscow-based Channel Cup, which also includes teams from Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and South Korea.

“That’ll be the majority of our team that we’ll head into February with,” Burke said. “That’ll depend on guys, the way they play early in the season. Some guys may emerge. Other guys may drop off. But I do feel that when we get to December, we’ll have put enough work and enough effort into this to have narrowed what we think will be most of our Olympic team down.”

The U.S. has all its focus on November’s Deutschland Cup, which will be full of Europe-based pros and include teams from Russia, Slovakia and host Germany, as its only pre-Olympic tournament. Despite playing almost 50 pre-Olympic games for the U.S. in 1988 before the Calgary Olympics, Granato believes it’s a positive that the coaches and players will be able to continue with their regular teams with limited interruption.

Johannson considered a more comprehensive pre-Olympic schedule but ruled against extra evaluation time to balance out possible fatigue.

“The NCAA programs, to me, just do an unbelievable job of developing players,” Johannson said. “I don’t need to fly the guy across the world for an event when he’s going to get great competition that weekend at school and we know him as a player.”

Developing familiarity is a challenge for the U.S. and Canada, and Burke said team-building will get going right away. It’ll be easier for Canada than the U.S., so Granato expects he and his assistants will have to “get creative” to establish relationships with players – whoever they may be.

“We don’t want to leave any stones unturned,” Burke said. “We’re going to use all our resources. And we’re going to make sure that when we head to South Korea, we haven’t left anything to chance and we’re going to be as prepared as we can possibly be.”

Related: Ovechkin is still ‘hopeful’ he’ll participate in 2018 Olympics

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a double header on Thursday night. In the early game, the New York Rangers host the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

These two teams will be going head-to-head for the first time since they met in the 2018 Winter Classic which the Rangers won 3-2 in overtime.

The Sabres are back in action after a six-day break. They went into their bye week with a 3-1 win over Columbus, but they had dropped their previous five games.

The first half of the season couldn’t have gone much worse for Buffalo. Only the Arizona Coyotes have accumulated less points (28) than the Sabres’ 31.

Even though their playoff dreams are all but crushed, they’ll still have to find motivation to play out the rest of the season. The wins and losses might not matter at this point, but showing professional pride always does.

“I don’t think you ever lose your motivation,” defenseman Marco Scandella said, per The Buffalo News. “I do what I love. I can’t speak for everyone in this room, but I definitely know that for myself it’s always exciting to play hockey. I’m always motivated. I think what getting a break does for you just gives you time to heal. You get to get away from it for a bit so when you come back you’re just that much more hungry and excited about it.”

As for the Rangers, they were able to put their three-game losing streak to bed with a big 5-1 win over the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night. New York gave up the first goal in that game, but they managed to score five unanswered goals. Forward Rick Nash busted out of his 12-game goalless slump with a two-goal performance.

“It was obviously a huge difference to play in goal,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist told The New York Post after the win. “It’s funny how it works. We play our best defensive game in a very long time and we score five goals. I don’t remember the last time we scored five goals.”

As strange as this season has been for the Rangers, they still find themselves in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s still a lot of games that need to be played, but they’re right in the thick of things in the East.

You’d have to think that a win over Buffalo is a must for a team currently in New York’s position.

In the late game, the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to Los Angeles to take on the Kings at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Pens saw their four-game winning streak come to an end in last night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks. Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring in the first period, but Pittsburgh watched as Anaheim scored four consecutive goals in the middle frame.

“We did some good things, we just made some big mistakes in the second period,” Sidney Crosby said, per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Give up that many goals and that many breakaways in a short period of time, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”

Even though the Penguins have four wins in their last five games, they can’t afford to get complacent. They only have a one point lead on the New York Islanders (the Isles have a game in hand) for the last Wild Card spot.

Things won’t get any easier for them, as the team announced that they’ll be without Matt Murray for an indefinite period of time after the passing of his father. They’ll be relying on Tristan Jarry until Murray is able to return.

For the Kings, getting out of their recent funk is a priority. They dropped the two games prior to their bye week and they’ve lost two more decisions since coming back. To make matters worse, three of those four losses have come against Pacific Division rivals (Flames, Ducks, Sharks).

They’re still sitting a playoff spot, but it’s probably not the one they want to be in. The Kings are in the final Wild Card spot in the West. They have the same number of points as Minnesota (53) who is behind them, but Los Angeles has two games in hand. On a positive note, they’re only one point behind the Sharks and Flames for second and third in the division.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Weather forces AHL’s Charlotte Checkers to play game in empty arena (Video)

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The Director of Finance/Controller filled in as the public address announcer. The Chief Operating Officer acted as the arena DJ. Ticket sales staff? They worked as the ice crew. A corporate salesperson ran the video board. The camerawoman regularly handles merchandise. Even the mascot, Chubby, was played by a corporate servicing specialist.

Wednesday night wasn’t your typical American Hockey League game at Bojangles’ Coliseum for the Charlotte Checkers. Inclement weather in the area forced the team to close the game to the public. But since the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and referees were already in town, and it would have been difficult to get Bridgeport back to Charlotte for a makeup, it was game on.

So in front of a crowd of, well, Checkers employees doubling as game operations staff, the teams played and the home side came out on top 4-3, thanks to a three-goal third period.

Here’s what a goal by the home team sounded like:

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The lack of a crowd didn’t stop the Checkers from acting like it was a normal game day. The mascot kept working and even “Cotton-Eyed Joe” was played to rev up the…players, I guess? It also wouldn’t have been a game night without the “Kiss Cam.”

Tonight was fun. Thanks for following along and staying safe. #BehindClosedDoors2

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This wasn’t the first time the team has played a game that was closed to the public. Back in 2016 Winter Storm Jonas caused a number of sporting events to be postponed, but not for the Checkers, who had their staff run the game.

The Checkers are off the next two days as they prepare to face the Rochester Americans in a two-game set this weekend. The weather in Charlotte will be much better over the next couple of days, which means the Checkers’ staff will be able to get back to their regular jobs.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Domingue almost quit hockey; Should Wings trade Howard?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Eric Lindros talks jersey retirement and about the buzz in Philadelphia now that the Eagles are in the NFC title game. (Philly.com)

• It will be awfully hard for the Blackhawks to make the playoffs if Corey Crawford misses the rest of the year. (Chicago Tribune)

• Willie O’Ree became the first black hockey player to play in the NHL 60 years ago this week. Not many people have had a greater impact on the game. (NHL.com)

• There’s a few reasons why Sean Couturier is having a great season for the Flyers. (Broad Street Hockey)

• The Detroit Red Wings should be sellers at the deadline and one of the guys they should look to trade is goalie Jimmy Howard. (Detroit News)

• It sure looks like hockey has become fun again for Nathan MacKinnon. (Denver Post)

• Many expected the Rangers would shift to a younger lineup after parting ways with Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan, but that hasn’t been the case. (New York Post)

• Washington Wizards forward Mike Scott isn’t a hockey fan, but he has a pretty large collection of NHL jerseys. (Washington Post)

• Lightning goalie Louis Domingue admitted that he almost quit hockey when he was struggling with the Coyotes earlier this season. (Raw Charge)

• The U.S. Women’s National Team won a pair of exhibition games against the best players from the NWHL. (Victory Press)

• The ECHL has already announced their new 2019 All-Star format, and it’s a little odd. (Scottywazz.com)

• A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993. If hockey fans want that streak to come to an end this year, they’ll probably have to root for the Winnipeg Jets. (Spector’s Hockey)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

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.