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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.

Bruins will way to Game 7 win against Maple Leafs

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Once again, the Boston Bruins finished a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, riding an overpowering third period. In the case of Wednesday’s game, the end result was a 7-4 win for the Bruins.

The 2018 edition featured some similarities to the Bruins’ 5-4 win back in 2013.

  • A Maple Leafs team headed for the summer shaking their heads and with some serious soul-searching to do.
  • The heartache that comes with the Leafs giving up leads. Toronto was up 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3. This wasn’t a collapse of the “It was 4-1” variety, but the Maple Leafs squandered multiple leads nonetheless.

  • The Bruins simply ran away with things in the third period. Boston went from being down 4-3 to winning 7-4. That domination included the Bruins keeping the Maple Leafs from registering a shot on goal through the first eight minutes of the final frame.

In the case of this latest Game 7, there were times when it seemed like the last shot on goal might be the winner.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Really, it was a nightmare game for both goalies. Frederik Andersen‘s Game 7 heartache is no longer limited to his time with the Anaheim Ducks, as he gave up six goals, including a few that are likely to haunt him during the off-season. The Lightning must be licking their chops at the prospect of exploiting what might be a fragile goalie in Tuukka Rask; the Bruins ended up on top in this one, yet Rask gave up four goals on 24 shots.

(Maybe a solid finish will help bolster his self-esteem? Rask stopped all eight Maple Leafs SOG in the third period after giving up those four goals on the first 18 shots he faced.)

If you want to summarize Game 7 in one video clip, Jake DeBrusk‘s second goal of the night (and eventual game-winner) could suffice. The Bruins simply demanded this win, showing off their skill and will while flabbergasting the overmatched Maple Leafs and a struggling Andersen:

Several players came up big on each side. DeBrusk scored those two goals and was quite the presence overall. Charlie McAvoy logged 26:43 of ice time with a +1 rating, while a blocked shot apparently didn’t really throw off Zdeno Chara, who managed a +2 rating and 28:38 TOI. Despite some warranted criticisms, David Krejci did manage to generate three assists, adding to a substantial playoff resume for his career. Patrick Marleau provided more than just a “veteran presence” for the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals during a zany first period.

Still, when it comes to the Maple Leafs, many will linger on those who fell short.

Andersen’s struggles were considerable, rounding out a remarkably hot-and-cold series overall. Auston Matthews failed to score a point despite firing four SOG, finishing the series with just a single goal and single assist. Jake Gardiner had an awful Game 7, suffering a -5 rating and absorbing some of the blame for multiple bad moments.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Gardiner said “most” of the loss was on him and that the defenseman had tears in his eyes while asking questions.

“I didn’t show up,” Gardiner said.

The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs in an exhilarating fashion, carrying over an impressive regular season of puck-hogging play. They have plenty of room for improvement, something Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy will surely emphasize as they turn their sights to a rested, versatile opponent in the Lightning.

If it’s anything like Bruins – Leafs, it should be thrilling … and maybe a goalie’s nightmare.

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.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info

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The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is now set, thanks to the Boston Bruins winning Game 7 over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-4. The Bruins will move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the Washington Capitals to complete the Eastern Conference bracket. Out West, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets will battle out of the Central Division and the Vegas Golden Knights take on the San Jose Sharks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Here’s the full second round schedule, which kicks off with two games on Thursday night:

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

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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.

Kapanen overwhelms Marchand, scores ridiculous goal

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To the chagrin of the coaches and goalies, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs are keeping things hectic during the second period of Game 7.

Kasperi Kapanen seems like he’s perpetually battling for a permanent/more prominent spot with the Maple Leafs, but it’s not for a lack of trying or moxie. He’s been hitting posts on some near-misses lately, but saved some magic for tonight.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

You can see that in a 4-3 goal that currently stands as the Maple Leafs’ lead. Kapanen overpowers Brad Marchand and then outwaits Tuukka Rask for an absolutely tremendous shorthanded goal.

(Check out that goal in the video above this post’s headline.)

Impressive, especially considering who that came against. At one point, the Maple Leafs had converted on both of their shots on goal early in the second period to go from being down 3-2 to up 4-3. As mentioned after that wild first period, you have to wonder about both goalies’ confidence, but that’s especially true of Rask right now.

To be fair, Kapanen’s showed a real knack for scoring big goals so far during his brief NHL career. As you may remember, he scored the game-winner in double overtime of Game 2 against the Washington Capitals during that tight series to start the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also helped them punch their ticket to the postseason in 2016-17 with his first NHL goal.

Then again, maybe this sort of goal is in the blood? Kasperi Kapanen’s shorthanded goal feels reminiscent of a great goal by his father Sami Kapanen:

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.

Bruins – Leafs Game 7 off to wild start, Reilly hit by puck

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You can forgive fans of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for hyperventilating right now, unless they’re merely staring blankly at their screens.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

Game 7 accelerated to 100 mph seemingly in mere seconds on Wednesday:

  • After a Sean Kuraly penalty, Patrick Marleau deflected a puck past Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a stunning 1-0 lead off of a power-play goal just 2:05 into the contest.
  • A delay of game infraction gave the Bruins a chance to tie things up on the power play, and they did just that as David Krejci and David Pastrnak set up Jake DeBrusk. That happened 4:47 into the game.
  • Less than two minutes later, Patrick Marleau scored again, giving Toronto a 2-1 edge that wouldn’t last.
  • The two teams combined for four goals through less than half of the first period, as Danton Heinen showed why he should be playing with the 2-2 goal with 11:50 remaining in the opening frame.
  • The Bruins took their first lead (3-2) of Game 7 with less than a minute left in the first period thanks to a goal by Patrice Bergeron.

Those were just the goals, too, as there were some close calls, making you wonder about the confidence of Rask and Frederik Andersen:

The two teams are also accruing some bumps and bruises, which must be to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s liking.

In the most dramatic instance, Brad Marchand ducked a high Zdeno Chara shot, leaving an unsuspecting Morgan Rielly to take a puck to the face. It’s a scary moment, although the good news is that Rielly was able to return for the beginning of the second period.

Yikes.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Chara also seemed stung by a blocked shot during the first period, as he took a puck to his ankle/foot area. He didn’t appear to miss any time, and it would be tough to imagine him not fighting through it during a Game 7, yet you wonder if the hulking defenseman’s mobility might be hindered after that.

The Bruins and Leafs already put on a show through 20 minutes. We’ll see who’s left standing to face the Bolts, whether this game ends in regulation or hits sudden death in a Game 7.

*Gulp*

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.