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U.S. out to solve its Olympics scoring problem vs Slovakia

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

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The United States had a goal-scoring problem at the Olympics.

If it lasts much longer, the Americans are going home early.

Only Norway and South Korea scored fewer goals than the four the U.S. put up in three preliminary-round games. Yet only Canada has gotten more shots on net than the United States’ 96 so far, so the goal in the qualification round against Slovakia on Tuesday is to figure out a way to turn opportunities into production.

”We haven’t scored goals, but we’ve a made it hard on teams in their own end,” coach Tony Granato said.

Without the young offensive talent of players like Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau and Shayne Gostisbehere left behind in the NHL, USA Hockey knew this could be a problem after seeing similar high shot and low goal totals from the Deutschland Cup in November. The late general manager, Jim Johannson, brought in college players Ryan Donato, Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway, American Hockey League scoring star Chris Bourque and former power-play specialist James Wisniewski to score and they’ve combined for three of the four goals.

A goal or two a game isn’t going to get it done from this point on. Maybe the U.S. hasn’t gotten many helpful bounces, but at times it hasn’t deserved them.

”We need to make sure we’re getting more pucks to the net and earn our bounces,” defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti said. ”It’s a combination (of) screens, the traffic and the secondary speed crashing the net, trying to find those loose pucks.”

Falling into the trap North American teams sometimes do on the wider international ice, the U.S. has taken a lot of harmless shots from far out, many without traffic in front of the net to screen the goaltender. Many goals in this tournament have come on those kinds of shots – deflecting off a body or stick in front – or scrambles around the net.

That’s a talking point for U.S. coaches and players.

”We’ve got to get more bodies to the net, we’ve got to be hungry around the net,” forward Broc Little said. ”We’re getting a lot of shots, but they’re not quite the looks that we need. We’ve got to take the goalie’s eyes away. I think we’ve had a lot of point shots, a lot of shots from outside and goalies in this tournament are going to be too good to beat them there.”

U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski has been off and on and will be needed to stop the shots he’s supposed to against Slovakia, especially given the offensive struggles. Granato said his team got four or five ”glorious” chances in a 4-0 loss to the Russians and believes he has the skill on the ice to finish.

”Creating scoring chances doesn’t do anything for you,” Granato said Monday. ”Finding ways to produce and score does, so I think we’ve got enough goal-scorers in that room that have had enough chances to feel good about creating the chances and now it’s about, ‘OK, I’ve got to find a way even to work harder or find a way to deserve a bounce by positioning myself a little more aggressively around the net.”’

In addition to higher-quality shots and more bodies for goaltenders to see through, one key might be the Americans using their speed – feet and puck movement – against a big Slovakia team that may not be able to handle that.

”We’re a fast team, so we really have to make sure we move the puck quick,” Wisniewski said. ”Maybe our defensemen have to get the puck toward the net and make sure we get it to the net, not getting it blocked, and we have to create some rebounds and some screens.”

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

More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org

Flames extend analytics darling Mikael Backlund

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

The line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Micheal Ferland (Ferland for now?) probably ranks as the Calgary Flames’ most important forward trio. If you spend a little time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll probably come across someone gushing about “The 3M Line,” maybe more than the bigger guns.

(Aside: I really tried to get a Campbell’s Soup-inspired nickname for that line, but it never took off. Probably for the greater good?)

With the trade deadline looming, the Flames took a big step toward keeping that line intact, signing underrated center Mikael Backlund to a six-year, $32.1 million contract extension. He’ll go from carrying a $3.575M cap hit in the final year of his current deal to $5.35M from 2018-19 through 2023-24.

This keeps “The 3M Line” together through 2018-19, assuming the team doesn’t want to split them up at some point.

The most infamous member of the trio is the least tenured of the three: Matthew Tkachuk will see his rookie contract expire after 2018-19. Michael Frolik, meanwhile, receives $4.3M per season through 2019-20. Tkachuk isn’t likely to go anywhere, mind you, but his inevitable raise could make it tough to keep all three of those puck-hogging forwards on the same roster that also boasts Gaudreau, Monahan, and pricey blueliners like Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton.

Backlund, 28 (soon to be 29 as of March 17), is a solid piece even if you look at his scoring stats alone. The 24th pick of the 2007 NHL Draft is trying to make this his third consecutive 20-goal season, although he’s been limited to 10 in 58 games. (He’s made up the difference with 24 assists.)

If you look at his possession metrics, you’ll see that Backlund consistently tilts the ice in his team’s favor, even with heavy-to-drastic defensive usage.

Ultimately, he brings a nice mix of the subtle stuff that might slip under the radar:

With enough scoring punch that he jumps off the charts even when you’re not, well, looking at charts.

Naturally, this is an expensive contract, so there’s some risk involved. Even so, most seem happy with the deal from the Flames’ end:

If you take a look at their salary structure, there’s really a lot to like in Calgary. Now the Flames need to start putting it all together on the ice.

Once that really starts to build momentum, Backlund could be the sort of player who really makes the difference in a tough playoff series. That’s what the Flames are paying him for, really.

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.

Phil Kessel doesn’t really care about scoring title: ‘I have two Cups’

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

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the possibility of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel potentially winning the NHL scoring title this season.

Since then Nikita Kucherov has kind of distanced himself a little bit in the race and has re-opened an eight-point lead over the rest of the pack, as well as a 10-point lead over Kessel.

On Friday, Kessel was asked about winning the scoring title and if he’s following the race between his teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid, and Claude Giroux.

He gave a pretty honest — and awesome — answer.

“I got two Cups,” said Kessel, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Doesn’t really matter.”

That pretty much settles that, doesn’t it?

[Related: Phil Kessel Joins Exclusive Hot Dog Hockey Card Club, Thanks To Upper Deck]

As of Friday Kessel is tied with Crosby, Malkin, McDavid and Giroux, all of whom have 66 points.

Stamkos is third in the league with 67 points, one point back of Gaudreau with 68 points.

All of them are chasing Kucherov’s 76 points.

The scoring title wasn’t the only thing that prompted Kessel to reference the Penguins’ past two Stanley Cup wins. With the team that traded him to Pittsburgh — the Toronto Maple Leafs — in town for a game on Saturday night Kessel was asked if he still gets fired up to face his former team, to which he responded (via @PensInsideScoop): “I don’t really care anymore. It’s my third year and we’ve won twice. It’s in the past.”

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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.

Brad Marchand embraces villain role during NHL All-Star Weekend

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TAMPA — Brad Marchand is pretty used to the reception he received during NHL All-Star Weekend. Even without his current five-game suspension — which he’ll resume serving on Tuesday — his reputation around the league has earned him plenty of boos in opposing arenas.

As he spent All-Star Weekend having fun playing the role of ‘bad guy,’ Marchand embraced it and enjoyed himself.

When he was introduced before the Skills Competition Saturday night, he gave a royal wave to the AMALIE Arena crowd as boos rained down. When Tampa Bay Lightning fans held up a sign reading “EXTERMINATE THE RAT” and featuring a caricature of him eating cheese, he smiled and took a photo in front of it. When he was tripped up by the Pacific Division’s Johnny Gaudreau in the All-Star Game final, he played up his reputation as an embellisher while trying to draw a double minor.

Before the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament began on Sunday afternoon, the All-Stars entered the rink on a red carpet and through a throng of fans wanting photos and autographs. Marchand heard the boos there as well.

“I thought there’d be some flying objects going around, but luckily I didn’t get hit by anything,” he joked.

The specter of flying objects or being booed every time he touched the puck didn’t rattle Marchand as he scored a goal and added two assists as the Atlantic Division fell in the final. It was all about enjoying the weekend.

“That’s what this weekend’s about: having a good time,” he said. “Just trying to take it all in. Very rarely do you get to come to these things. [I’m] really, very happy to be here, so I just want to enjoy every second of it.”

Despite Marchand being a good sport this weekend and taking in the hate that was sent his way, he doesn’t see his reception in other opposing arenas changing any time soon.

“I think it’s been following [me] for the last 10 years now,” he said. “It’s not going to be any different than it is anywhere. It’s how it is. There’s always guys like that in the league. You can’t change how the fans think.”

MOREWhy Brad Marchand is NHL’s most frustrating player

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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.

Boeser owns All-Star weekend with MVP; Pacific beats Atlantic

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What a weekend for Brock Boeser and hockey fans.

It wasn’t enough that Boeser won the official trophy for best hair (MWF – Most Wonderful Flow?), and it wasn’t even enough that the Vancouver Canucks rookie clobbered the accuracy shooting competition. Boeser scored the game-winning goal for the Pacific Division in a 5-2 win against the Central Division, and then helped the Pacific beat the Atlantic 5-2 to split $1 million in winnings. With that, he was named the MVP.

“I was definitely nervous coming into it. I had some sweat going down my palms yesterday before the shooting contest,” Boeser said. “But I think once you get here, meet most of the guys and have some laughs, it’s easier to enjoy the experience. I wasn’t too nervous about today — just have fun, smile and play hockey. That’s what I did and I enjoyed all of it.”

Unsolicited opinion: It’s cooler when a guy on an entry-level contract ends up winning the MVP, and thus a car, rather than a guy who’s already making mega-bucks. That was a sneaky bonus of the already-tremendous moment of John Scott winning an MVP. Boeser is set to be an RFA after 2018-19, although a shampoo company should probably make him rich before then, if there’s any justice in the universe.

Seriously though, All-Star Weekend was good to hockey’s new favorite Thor look-alike.

The Pacific vs. Atlantic matchup was a little less wild than the first two games. Check out this post for a bucket’s worth of great GIFS, pictures, videos, and antics.

The Pacific Division thought this moment was exciting, by the way.

Bradvillain

That said, there were some fun moments, including Brad Marchand continuing to really milk the whole villain thing. One of the highlights: Marchand drawing a rare penalty on Johnny Gaudreau, then really hamming it up.

The Sweater song

Misc.

Mike Smith was pretty close to scoring as a goalie:

D’oh. Let’s just throw some more Brock hair fun in there, with apologies to other noteworthy flows, including that of fellow All-Star Noah Hanifin.

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

A worthy cause:

Good times.

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.