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U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski ready for ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ Olympic opportunity

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Ryan Zapolski’s second year in the ECHL gave him a taste of what life is like for a goaltender plying his trade at that level of professional hockey.

Playing for four teams in one season, Zapolski got used to hearing the phrase “It’s a numbers thing” from coaches telling him why he was being released. He went from Stockton to Kalamazoo to Toledo to Gwinnett (to the tune of the Carmen Sandiego TV theme song) and found himself frustrated — the lack of opportunities left him wondering if he should walk away from the game.

“I had been home for two weeks in-between games and didn’t really know where I was going with hockey,” Zapolski told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday. “I wasn’t applying for jobs or anything like that, so it wasn’t that real for me.”

He felt his game was fine, but that phrase kept being uttered by coaches at each stop. The retirement option, however, was just a passing thought and he knew he just had to be a little more patient. “I was still young enough and it was only my second year, so I was still happy to wait and look for that chance,” he said.

A life of going to the rink every day to play hockey beat working a regular job, so Zapolski stuck with it and heeded the advice of players who quit too early by having the mindset of trying to play as long as he could.

“I’m happy I stuck with it,” he said.

Fast forward six years and hundreds of long bus rides later and Zapolski, who is in his second year with Jokerit of the KHL, is one three goaltenders on the U.S. men’s team.

When the NHL announced they wouldn’t be sending players to the 2018 Olympics, Jim Johansson, the late general manager of the men’s team, reached out to the 31-year-old Zapolski in May letting him know that he was on their radar. With three roster spots open for goaltenders, there was plenty of motivation heading into this season.

“You just get really excited right away,” Zapolski said, “just want to get the season going. I think maybe a little extra time in the gym, too. But obviously, you get that type of news and you know what kind of chance it could be and you want to have a good start to the season.”

[USA Hockey announces 2018 Olympic men’s roster]

It’s been a great year for Zapolski as he’s posted a 23-10-4 record and a .933 save percentage with Jokerit. He was named to the KHL All-Star Game earlier this month and also signed a two-year extension, which would give him seven years in Finland when it expires.

“I think a lot of people back home don’t know who he is and don’t realize how good the hockey is over here,” said Zapolski’s Jokerit teammate Matt Gilroy. “He’s been really good for a long time over here, especially this year. We’re one of the better teams in the league and he has a big thing to do with that. He’s just a gamer and the Olympics is a special tournament that I think he can do well at.”

Zapolski’s final season in the ECHL was 2012-13 and it was the best of his career. In 38 games, he was 25-11-2 with a .944 save percentage. That success led him to being named the league’s rookie of the year, goaltender of the year and most valuable player. He parlayed that into a contract with Lukko of Finland’s SM-liiga, where he would spend the next three seasons.

The plan was to play a few years there and then come back to North America, but nothing concrete materialized contract-wise over here. Zapolski didn’t worry about returning home to play mainly because he would sign extensions to stay at the beginning of the season.

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Zapolski was the only goaltender listed on the men’s roster when the team was announced Jan. 1. Brandon Maxwell and David Leggio were added two weeks later, but it’s a safe bet the Erie, Pa. native will be the starter when the U.S. plays its first game of the tournament Feb. 14 versus Slovenia.

Like Gilroy said, Zapolski isn’t a household name in the U.S., but a strong Olympics in front of a large television audience could open some eyes to future opportunities. Has he thought about attempting to come back and play in North America in the future?

“It’s definitely something that’s a possibility,” he said. “I’m happy here, so I’m not really going to rush anything or push anything to get back to North America. Of course, I know [the Olympics are] the biggest stage, everybody’s going to be watching [like] NHL GMs.”

Zapolski mentioned Tim Thomas as an example of a goaltender who got an NHL chance at a later age (28) after years of playing in the minors and Europe. But for the moment he’s not thinking that far down the line.

“I’ve been overlooked in the past, my whole career, really,” he said. “Like I said, I’m happy here and if it happens, it happens. I really have no regrets coming over.”

Zapolski has played in three Deutschland Cups for the U.S., but representing his country at the Olympics is an opportunity on another level.

“Going to Deutschland Cup in the past was such an honor. The first one I kind of thought that was my Olympics and didn’t think I’d get a chance to be in the actual Olympics,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest honor in sports for any athlete is to represent your country in the Olympics.

“It’s going to be special, pretty emotional for most of us to be there. Just looking forward to everything. The whole experience is going to be once-in-a-lifetime.”

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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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.

The Buzzer: Raanta shutout, Brassard showcase, Blackhawks finally win

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Players of the Night:

Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes: Raanta shutout Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, stopping all 40 shots sent his way for his first goose egg as a member of the Coyotes.

Derick Brassard, Ottawa Senators: The Derick Brassard Showcase continued on Saturday night. The Senators forward, who has been the subject of trade speculation leading up to the trade deadline in two weeks, scored in his fourth straight game and added two helpers in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers.

Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights: Smith extended his point streak to seven games, scoring twice and adding a helper in a 6-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens. Smith has five goals and seven assists during his streak and now has 51 points in 58 games this season.

Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks: Nilsson turned aside 44 of the 45 shots he faced from one of the league’s hottest teams in the Boston Bruins. The Canucks obliged their goaltender, scoring six and chasing Tuukka Rask in a 6-1 win.

Jonathan Toews and the rest of the Chicago Blackhawks: Losers of eight straight coming into Saturday, the Blackhawks finally ended the streak, putting up seven goals against the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals. Toews had a goal and two assists in the game. It was Chicago’s first win of the month and their seven goals were half of the number they scored in their previous eight games.

Eddie Lack, New Jersey Devils: Lack wasn’t supposed to be playing against the league’s top team. But there he was on Saturday, stopping 48 of 51 shots against Stamkos, Kucherov and Co. He even out-dueled Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will likely win the Vezina in June. Impressive stuff.

Highlights of the Night:

Ryan Hartman, untouchable:

Nikita Scherbak’d:

Matt Murray did this two nights ago. Deja vu:

Two-pad stack alert:

Factoids of the Night:

The season can’t end fast enough for the Oilers:

The Golden Knights are creeping toward another record:

Evgeni Malkin hits 900:

MISC:

Scores:

Kings 4, Sabres 2

Ducks 3, Wild 2 (SO)

Senators 6, Rangers 3

Coyotes 1, Oilers 0

Golden Knights 3, Canadiens 3

Devils 4, Lightning 3

Penguins 5, Maple Leafs 3

Red Wings 3, Predators 1

Blackhawks 7, Capitals 1

Canucks 6, Bruins 1

Panthers 6, Flames 3


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

Blackhawks fans tossed after racist taunts toward Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly

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Four Chicago Blackhawks fans were kicked out of Saturday’s game against the Washington Capitals at United Center after racially-charged taunts were made toward Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly, serving a five-minute major for fighting in the third period, got upset with a fan next to him who, according to the Washington Post, was chanting, “Basketball, basketball basketball,” toward Smith-Pelly, who is black. 

“There’s absolutely no place in a game of hockey, or a country, for racism,” Trotz said after the game. “I think it’s disgusting. There’s no place for it. The athletes in this country don’t deserve that. It just shows ignorance.”

Trotz said he hadn’t spoken with DSP about the incident, but said he was upset and his teammates had been talking with him.

DSP did not speak with the media following the game, which the Capitals lost 7-1.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

The Blackhawks issued a statement following the game

““We were made aware of an incident at tonight’s game involving a small group of attendees who made harmful comments directed at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly,” a Hawks spokesperson said. “The fans were immediately removed and we apologize to Smith-Pelly and the Washington Capitals organization. We are committed to providing an inclusive environment for everyone who attends our games and these actions will never be tolerated.”


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

Should Miles Wood be suspended after boarding Vladislav Namestnikov? (video)

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

He won’t have much of a defense, it would seem.

New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood took off his responsible thinking cap on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the second period, Woods came barrelling in on the Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov. The latter had already ushered the puck up the ice, and with his back turned to Woods, the Devils sophomore appeared to leave his feet, driving his shoulder into the nameplate of Namestnikov’s jersey.

If that wasn’t enough, Andrej Sustr came in to defend his teammate and paid the price at the hands of Wood, who broke his visor with a punch, leaving Sustr bloodied.

Wood was given a boarding minor on the play and an additional two minutes for roughing after he left Sustr in a mess. It wouldn’t be at all shocking if Wood is summoned by the NHL’s player safety department.

Both Namestnikov and Sustr had to leave the game, but both returned in the third period.

The Devils won the game 4-3. Guess who scored the game-winner…


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

Cam Talbot, furious with overturned goal, launches expletive-laden tirade

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

Cam Talbot wasn’t too happy after losing to the bottom feeders of the NHL’s Western Conference on Saturday afternoon.

The Oilers, who have Connor McDavid, couldn’t manage to score a goal against a team that’s given up the third most to opposing teams this season.

And the goal they appeared to score to tie the game 1-1 in the third period was eventually overturned because of goaltender interference.

Video review confirmed that Patrick Maroon impeded Antti Raanta’s ability to move his blocker side arm freely, a call that Talbot took exception to following the game.

“It’s extremely frustrating, to have what seems like every single one of these calls go against us in the past two years is just unbelievable,” Talbot lamented to the media. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We challenge a goal, it stands. They challenge a goal on us for some reason it’s always waved off.

“I just don’t understand it, it’s the exact same play that we had last week against L.A. where the guy clips my blocker. We challenge and it’s still a goal. Last year in the playoffs against  Corey Perry, same play, takes my blocker with him, puck goes blocker side and it’s still a goal on us. There’s just no consistency and I’m f***ing sick of it.”

Answering another question, Talbot continued to drop f-bombs speaking to Robert Tychkowski of the Edmonton Journal.

“The fact that every single goal is disallowed against us and every single call or every single time we challenge it’s still upheld. I don’t f***ing get it. They’re the same f***ing plays every time and for some reason, the call goes against us these past two years. We haven’t won one challenge in the past two years. It’s ridiculous. I just don’t get it.” 

This looks one part frustration and another part sour grapes. There have been some blown calls this season, for sure, including against the Oilers.

Here.

Here.

And here.

But this one the Situation Room got right.

Meanwhile, Talbot’s Oilers were shutout for the seventh time this season. They continue to wildly underachieve, despite having names like McDavid and Draisaitl. And they have to watch former teammates like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle light it up with their new teams.

Sure, Talbot and Co. can blame it a host of external issues. But he and the Oilers have to start looking within. They didn’t become bottom feeders because a goal got overturned.


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