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No-NHL 2018 Olympics makes for unique preparation strategies

When Brian Gionta last played in the Olympics in 2006, his final NHL game before the break allowed him just three days to fly to Italy and get acclimated before suiting up for Team USA.

This time around, the semi-retired U.S. captain and his Olympic teammates will get four whole practice days before opening the tournament against Slovenia on Feb. 14.

”With the NHL setup, you fly over there, you have a small window to practice in and then you’re right into the games,” Gionta said. ”We’ve had the added benefit of being able to go over to the Deutschland Cup and be together for that week. A lot of the guys that were there are on the team and have a good understanding of each other. But I think that’s a nice change, I guess, from previous Olympics.”

Still, the U.S. lost all three games at that tournament in November and didn’t score more than two goals in any of them. Preparation under a new coach, learning the nuances and habits of new teammates are certainly key, but every men’s hockey team going to South Korea is in a much different situation from any previous Olympics.

Before NHL players began participating in 1998, national teams were centralized and spent months together – much like women’s teams do now. In contrast, the past five Olympics featured quick turnarounds when it came to training because so many players were also in the NHL, which decided this time around not to pause its 82-game regular season.

However, no NHL didn’t automatically translate into more practice time as the teams were put together.

Almost everyone on an Olympic roster is playing professionally or in college, so there isn’t much of an opportunity for training camps – though Canada, Russia and other countries are making the most of any time they have to get together. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League has its final games before the Olympic break Jan. 28, and other European leagues will release players shortly after that so they can prepare.

Chock full of stars from the KHL, including former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, Russia should be the first to have its full team together and will play exhibition games in Moscow on Jan. 30 and Feb. 4. Canada is gathering as many players as possible in Latvia on Jan. 28 and will play two exhibition games there and one more in South Korea before the Olympics begin as it tries to win a third consecutive gold medal.

”We have access to our players very early, and we’re going to take advantage of that,” said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice president of hockey operations and national teams. ”We’re actually going to simulate the first two games of the Olympics with the ice times and the game times and try to get used to that kind of quick turnaround from a 9 p.m. game and a day off and a noon game.”

Sweden, which has a handful of former NHL players and projected 2018 No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin , will gather in Seoul for four days of practice before facing Canada on Feb. 12. The Czech Republic will hold training camp in Prague from Jan. 29-Feb. 6 before practicing in Seoul and playing an exhibition game against Finland on Feb. 11, while the Swiss are scheduled to play Germany in Kloten, Switzerland, on Feb. 6 and Norway in Goyang, South Korea, five days later.

USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson said his team won’t play any exhibition games with most U.S. players arriving in South Korea on Feb. 8. Johannson said the U.S. will practice Feb. 10-13 and get in a game-day skate Feb. 14, which coach Tony Granato feels will be enough preparation.

”We’ve all been parts of multiple tournaments like this, so we’re not unfamiliar with them,” said Granato, who played 49 games with the U.S. national team prior to the 1988 Olympics and currently coaches at the University of Wisconsin. ”A lot of the excitement and build-up leading up to it makes it that much better – you’re going to get there, we’re going to jump on the ice, we’re going to practice and then a few days later we’ll be center stage and ready to play.”

Seventeen of the 25 U.S. players were at the Deutschland Cup in November and won’t be back on the ice together until nearly three months later. The U.S. women’s team? They gathered in Florida in September, played a series of games against top Olympic rival Canada and have been together since.

”It’s a huge bonus and a huge advantage to be together all year,” forward Meghan Duggan said. ”(It’s ) a difference from a world championship year, a non-Olympic year where we play with our pro teams and our club teams or college teams and get together for certain periods of time whether it be for world championships or Four Nations Cup or training camp.”

Canada’s men’s team took part in several Olympic tune-up tournaments for evaluation purposes. GM Sean Burke, who played in goal for Canada in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, is trying to make the most of this hybrid schedule to put coach Willie Desjardins and his team in the best position to succeed.

”We’ve had a lot of time to not only evaluate our players but have them together to do some team-building and we’re going to get a good two-week training camp. I like the process,” Burke said. ”Our coaching staff can really get down to working on our systems and having everything in place that they’re comfortable with. That’s a real nice luxury to have.”

AP Sports Reporters Teresa M. Walker and James Ellingworth contributed.

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

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

Doughty, Hedman, Subban are 2018 Norris Trophy finalists

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Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators have been named finalists for the 2018 Norris Trophy. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Assocation, is given “to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” will be handed out during the NHL Awards show June 20 in Las Vegas.

This is the fourth time Doughty has been name a finalist. He won the award in 2016 after finishing second the year before. Hedman finished third in the voting last season and this is the second time he’s finished in the top three. Subban, like Doughty, has a Norris Trophy on his resume (2013). This is the third time he’s been up for the award.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Drew Doughty: The Kings blue liner finished sixth in scoring among defensemen with 60 points, which included 10 goals. He also led all NHL players in total ice time with 2,200:31, finishing with an average of 26:50 per game. He had a strong possession game with a 53 percent Corsi and a 4.39 Relative Corsi, meaning LA fired nearly five shots more per 60 minutes when Doughty was on the ice.

“I’m not starting the season, thinking ‘oh I got to get the most points I can, so I can win the Norris,’” he told The Athletic last month. “I’m starting the season, thinking, ‘I’ve got to get my defensive game even better, because that’s where my team needs me the most – to lead the charge in that area. It’s a team game and it’s about winning championships.”

The Case for Victor Hedman: Hedman finished tied for first among defensemen in goals scored with 17 and finished fourth in points with 63. He set a career high in ice time with 1,990:30 total minutes, averaging 25:51 per night. The possession stats for the Lightning defenseman were solid as well, with a 52 percent Corsi and a 0.38 Relative Corsi.

“I’m fortunate to be on an unbelievable team that helped me out through my first decade in the league, to help me grow into the player I want to be,” he told Sports Illustrated in February. “Still got stuff to work on and get better at, but obviously winning the Norris would be something that I want to do. I want to be at the top of my game. I want to play my best every night.”

The Case for P.K. Subban: Subban was right behind Hedman in goals scored (16) and right behind Doughty in total points (59). He logged 1,977:24 of ice time, playing in all 82 games for the Predators this season. As you’d expect from a Norris finalist, his possession stats were good, as he finished with a 52 percent Corsi and a 0.3 Relative Corsi.

Earlier this season, Subban told the Tennessean he felt his defensive game was overlooked. “The offensive part of my game has always been there,” he said. “The defensive part has always been there as well, but for whatever reason, I don’t seem to get the credit for what I do in my (defensive) zone and how I contribute defensively for our hockey club.”

2018 NHL Award finalists
Lady Byng (Friday)
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Leafs, Blue Jackets try to even things up

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Game 4: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (Bruins lead series 2-1)
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Call: Mike Emrick, Pierre McGuire, Eddie Olczyk
Series preview
Stream

Game 4: Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (Blue Jackets lead 2-1)
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Call: Ken Daniels, Darren Pang
Series preview
Stream

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Predators’ Ryan Hartman suspended one game for illegal check to head

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When the Nashville Predators attempt to close out their series against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night they will be without forward Ryan Hartman.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday afternoon that Hartman has been suspended one game for an illegal check to the head of Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg during the Predators’ 3-2 win in Game 4 on Wednesday.

Here is the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

He was given a two-minute minor penalty for charging on the play. It happened early in the third period.

It turned out to be a pretty eventful night for Hartman as he was also penalized in the second period for roughing and holding the stick during a sequence that saw him get speared by Avalanche forward Sven Andrighetto.

Andrighetto was given a roughing penalty during the sequence, but to this point has not received any supplemental discipline for the spearing incident.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This is already the fourth suspension of the playoffs as Hartman joins Drew Doughty (one game), Nazem Kadri (three games), and Josh Morrissey (one game) as players to sit for at least one game.

There was only one suspension during the entire 2017 playoffs.

The Predators acquired Hartman at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Victor Ejdsell, a first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick. In 78 games this season between the two teams he scored 11 goals to go with 20 assists. Three of those goals game as a member of the Predators. So far in the first-round series against Colorado he has scored one goal for the Predators.

Related: Avalanche to start Andrew Hammond in Game 5

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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.