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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

Trading with enemy: Rangers send Grabner to Devils

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The New York Rangers signaled that they’re still open for business – and aren’t taking injury chances – by making Ryan McDonagh, Michael Grabner, and Rick Nash healthy scratches in Thursday’s eventual loss to Montreal. It wasn’t long before they showed why.

The Rangers, daringly, traded with local rivals in the New Jersey Devils. This stands as either the first swap between the two franchises since 1979 or the first trade between the two teams, period. Grabner serves as another significant forward the Devils have added via a trade.

The Trade: Devils acquire Michael Grabner from the Rangers; Rangers receive a second-round pick and prospect Igor Rykov.

Why the Devils made this trade: New Jersey is battling hard for playoff positioning, and things have been a little dicey lately, with two straight losses, even as Taylor Hall continues his red-hot scoring streak.

[Get up to date on a busy night on the ice for the Metro division]

Grabner gives the Devils more scoring punch, and considering his speed, he could really fit in well with the way New Jersey has been converting to the sort of attacking system that was once almost unthinkable.

Maybe New Jersey needs defense more, but is it that easy to come by? “Out-scoring your problems” is a fun strategy, either way. Grabner, 30, currently boasts a “Cy Young” stat line of 25-6 (25 goals, six assists) so far this season. Really, he might be the biggest winner of all; the pending unrestricted free agent could enjoy an even bigger raise from his bargain-basement $1.65 million cap hit if he powers the Devils during a playoff push.

Why the Rangers made this trade: Grabner’s contract expires after this season. Getting a second-round pick and a prospect is a nice return for a mid-level “rental.” The Rangers have made no mistake about being in liquidation mode, as Grabner continues the work they already began by moving Nick Holden. There could be quite a bit more coming for the Rangers.

It’s unclear if Rykov will be much more than a throw-in.

Some like the defenseman’s two-way game, and he’s maturing in the KHL. That said, the 20-year-old wasn’t drafted in 2015, while the Devils selected him in the fifth round (132nd overall) in 2016. All About the Jersey provided interesting instant feedback on Rykov when he was selected.

This is most likely about the second-rounder for the Rangers, although …

Who won the trade?

This is a straightforward deal. The Devils gamble a bit, but not enormously, to try to further their playoff push. There’s always the chance that Grabner would be a big hit in Newark and re-sign, but so far this sure looks like a short-term fix.

The Rangers get a fabulous return for what might just be a few months of Grabner’s services, which weren’t going to do them any good with their season going down the tubes. This could really get the ball rolling on a wave of moves, whether this franchise goes “full rebuild” or leans more toward a “reset.”

(Ah, sporting terminology …)

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.

Metro movement: Flyers gain on Capitals, Penguins

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Every now and then, it’s convenient to group the highly competitive Metropolitan Division’s games into a lightning round post. That was especially true here, but it seems reasonable enough tonight, too.

Let’s start at the bottom: the New York Rangers are just short of waving the white flag, as they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. The most relevant thing they did on Thursday was to make Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, and Michael Grabner healthy scratches, a nod to the trade deadline. They’re stuck at 59 points in 61 games.

[BREAKING: Rangers reportedly send Grabner to the Devils(!)]

Now let’s rattle off the relevant results, going from the first-ranked Capitals and stepping down the ladder.

Inactive on Thursday: Penguins (74 points in 61 games played), Hurricanes (64 points in 60 GP)

Capitals drop emotional loss to Panthers, and (barely) in regulation

It seemed like Washington would shake off Roberto Luongo‘s much-see speech and grab a win during an emotional night in Florida. They had a 2-1 lead fairly deep into Thursday’s game.

The Panthers wouldn’t be denied. They ended up tying the game with less than four minutes remaining, and then Vincent Trocheck won it with just 20 seconds left in regulation. Leaving this one empty-handed stings for the Caps, although in the grand scheme of things, it was nice for Florida to get to W.

[Luongo’s speech, Panthers’ emotional ceremony.]

Flyers virtually tie second-ranked Penguins, beat Blue Jackets in regulation.

On paper, this wasn’t a pretty 2-1 win for the Flyers. Prevailing in regulation against a divisional opponent, thus limiting at least one threat from chipping away at their buffer? Now, that’s beautiful for Philly.

If you want a summary of how rapidly fortunes can change in the NHL, consider this: the Flyers have a very real chance to win this division mere months after losing 10 games in a row. Sports, everyone.

Both teams only managed 20 shots on goal, making for a pretty friendly way for Petr Mrazek to make his Flyers debut. Claude Giroux (goal, assist) and Shayne Gostisbehere (two assists) really powered the victory, too, as they were involved in both goals.

The Flyers are showing that they can win a variety of games … and with a variety of goalies. They’re now on a four-game winning streak, and are even better when you zoom out, going 8-0-2 in their past 10 games.

Mrazek got the Ric Flair treatment:

The bright side for the Blue Jackets is that they’re currently in the final wild-card position, even with frustrations piling up. Still, this was an opportunity to create some distance from opponents that are breathing down their necks …

Islanders fall to Maple Leafs, but it was in a shootout

… as the Islanders grabbed a “charity point.”

While the Blue Jackets are at 65 standings points in 61 games played for that final wild-card spot (and fifth in the Metro), the Islanders are close by with 65 points in 62 GP.

It was a thriller in Toronto, and while Doug Weight’s bunch deserves some kudos for hanging in there, they did see 2-0 and 3-2 leads dissolve.

The brightest side is probably that they might be making modest gains on defense, as they’ve limited opponents to 32 and 31 shots on goal during the past two contests. That’s progress for a team that recently saw goalies make 45 and 50-save shutouts.

Taylor Hall remains hot, but not enough for a win (again)

The New Jersey Devils fired 40 shots on goal, and Taylor Hall kept his remarkable scoring streak going. (Officially, his 26th goal of 2017-18 pushed him to 13 games, while others believe it’s 20 in a row.)

You’d think that would be a winning combination, but not exactly the quietly climbing Minnesota Wild, who ended up winning 4-2.

Still, that Hall kid is going to be OK, eh?

***

So, here is how the Metro looks after all of that action.

Capitals: 75 points in 61 games played (31 ROW)
Penguins: 74 points in 61 GP (33 ROW)
Flyers: 74 points in 61 GP (31 ROW)
Devils: 70 points in 61 GP (27 ROW)
Islanders: 65 points in 62 GP (26 ROW)
Hurricanes: 64 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
Rangers, if you must: 59 points in 61 GP (24 ROW)

The Penguins also have 35 vanilla wins, while the Flyers are at 32.

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.

Panthers’ Luongo gives emotional speech about Florida school shooting

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Prior to Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals, the Florida Panthers honored victims of last week’s shooting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, which claimed the lives of 17 people.

Being that the high school is located about 14 miles from the Panthers’ BB&T Center, it’s not surprising that many players were highly emotional during the ceremony. Remarkably, Roberto Luongo gave an outstanding speech about his love for the Parkland area, where he’s spent 12 years of his life, and how the shootings affected his family and the community at large.

You can see a full transcript of Luongo’s emotional speech here and watch it in the video above this post’s headline.

NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika noted earlier today that Luongo’s son experienced a scare last week:

That’s just one of Cotsonika’s tweets about this emotional night; his full feed is worth your time.

The Panthers projected names of the victims on the ice during the pre-game ceremony, and also provided this beautiful tribute:

It says a lot about the composure of Luongo and the Panthers to go from such an emotional ceremony into a game against the Capitals, especially considering moments like these:

For more information, particularly how to support those affected, the Panthers’ website is a great place to start. You can also find out more about the Panthers’ tribute in this earlier PHT post.

Sadly, nights like these have been far too common lately, but credit the NHL and its teams for heartfelt responses to tragedies. Much like the Vegas Golden Knights opening their inaugural season without ads on the boards and with an emotional presentation, the Panthers handled this situation with class.

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.

Canada, Russians get dream draw to reach gold-medal game

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Informed Germany had upset top-seeded Sweden and would be Canada’s semifinal opponent, Eric O’Dell’s unfiltered reaction didn’t last long.

”Oh yeah? Perfe – it doesn’t matter,” he said, abruptly changing what he was going to say. ”We’re ready for any team, and every team from here going forward’s going to be tough. It really didn’t matter for us, but we’ll be ready.”

Many Canadians share O’Dell’s initial surprise and happiness to face underdog Germany instead of Sweden, and the same can be said for Russians at least relieved to get the Czech Republic and not the faster United States. They have perhaps the best draws they could have imagined on a crash course to the gold-medal game at this Olympic tournament with no NHL players.

The two traditional hockey powerhouses have been clinical but not perfect in getting to this point and should have one final chance to get their games in order for what would be a tense final between two longtime rivals. But Canada overlooking Germany and the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” overlooking Czech Republic would be a mistake.

”They belong in the semifinals,” Canada captain Chris Kelly said of the Germans. ”They’re playing well. They’ve won two overtime games and last game they were in control. They were up 3-1 in the third period, so we need to be at our best against them. We need to stay in the moment and focus on them. We can’t look too far ahead.”

Slovakia coach Craig Ramsay said before the tournament that if the Germans get good goaltending they can do some damage. They’ve gotten that from Danny aus den Birken, who has a 2.43 goals-against average and made 31 saves in a 4-3 overtime victory over Sweden.

Germany had never before beaten Sweden at the Olympics, and after doing so even coach Marco Sturm conceded his team’s expectations and goals have changed throughout the tournament.

”It’s our dream and we’re allowed to dream,” said Sturm, who played 14 NHL seasons before moving into coaching. ”I think all the athletes who are at the Olympics are allowed to dream and our dream came true and now we’re in the top four, so it can’t be better that.”

The two favorites came in expecting this, and after beating Norway in the quarterfinals, Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk said, ”Our dream’s still on.” The Czech Republic stands in their way, and the Russians watched it beat the United States and the defensive-minded team has improved every game.

”They are good,” former NHL player Ilya Kovalchuk said. ”They’re really strong, they won their group, they beat the Americans who is a really good team, so we need to be prepared.”

The Czech Republic will certainly be prepared and have no shortage of belief after knocking off the United States in a shootout. It has gotten similarly strong goaltending from Pavel Francouz, who has stopped nine of 10 attempts in two shootouts, including in the quarterfinals to eliminate the United States. The Czechs have a handful of former NHL players in Roman Cervenka, Jakub Nakladal and captain Martin Erat.

It’s starting to feel familiar to Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, who led the Czech Republic to the gold medal in 1998 in Nagano by beating Canada and Russia.

”They don’t have as many stars as we did in Nagano, but they have some skilled players and they play like a team,” Hasek said by phone. ”It reminds me a little bit (of) our team in ’98. We didn’t have as many stars as Americans or Canadians, but we play as a team the best hockey.”

Canada has played some of its best hockey, too, and will likely have former New York Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin in goal against Germany after he replaced injured starter Ben Scrivens during its 1-0 quarterfinal shutout of Finland. General manager Sean Burke called Scrivens day-to-day with a shoulder/collarbone injury and expects the veteran to return. Scrivens did not practice Thursday.

Burke, 51, was a goalie for 15 NHL seasons but isn’t eligible to suit up.

”It’s not me,” he said. ”Hopefully it’s somebody better than me.”