James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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So it begins: Today’s two World Cup games

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So it begins: with two games, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey kicks off on Saturday.

Let’s take a quick look at the two contests.

Team USA vs. Team Europe

Airing on: ESPN 2, Sportsnet, TVA Sports at 3:30 p.m. ET

With juggernaut Canada looming for America’s next game, they probably realize that they need to get off to a nice start with a win against Europe. On the other hand, Jaroslav Halak & Co. hope to continue the momentum from their win against Sweden.

Team Czech Republic vs. Team Canada

Airing on: ESPN News, Sportsnet, TVA Sports at 8 p.m. ET

Carey Price gets to carry the baton for Canada with Braden Holtby and Claude Giroux standing as especially rare scratches. While Canada stands as the healthy favorite, the Czech Republic looked sharper than some may have expected during their warm-up games.

Crosby and Malkin look forward to going head-to-head

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are a decade into partnership that has helped guide the Pittsburgh Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups, three combined MVP awards, four scoring titles and a seemingly endless wave of GIF-worthy goals.

It hasn’t always been easy. There was the language barrier when Malkin first arrived from Russia in 2006 to join Crosby as the linchpins of a franchise trying to restore itself to its former glory. The natural growing pains that come when two supremely talented players try to figure things out. The giddy celebration in Detroit in 2009 that ended with Crosby raising the Cup, a triumph that seemed destined to be the launching point of a dynasty.

When it didn’t happen thanks to six years of good but never consistently great hockey, the two remained committed to each other. The payoff came during Pittsburgh’s renaissance under coach Mike Sullivan last spring, when the Penguins sprinted to a championship with their two cornerstone players leading the way.

“At the end of the day we both chose to be here and want to play together and that’s not always the case on every team,” Crosby said Tuesday. “I think there’s a lot of respect there.”

A sentiment that will be put to the test – at least briefly – when Crosby and Team Canada face Malkin and Team Russia in a World Cup of Hockey exhibition on Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center, the final tuneup before both squads before the tournament opens later this week in Toronto.

It’s not the first time the Crosby and Malkin have been on opposite sides during international play. Six years ago, Crosby and Canada torched Malkin and the Russians 7-3 in the Olympic quarterfinals on the way to gold. Yet Wednesday will mark the first time when both stars will be at “home,” even if Malkin will end up getting dressed in the visiting locker room.

Yes, Malkin knows the way.

“It’s weird,” Malkin said. “But I don’t know how the fans feel, but I hope they support us.”

That won’t be in question. The curious sight of Crosby’s No. 87 and Malkin’s No. 71 in different hued sweaters on Pittsburgh’s home ice will be jarring. Not nearly as jarring, though, as the prospect of both of them chasing after a loose puck in the corner with different agendas.

Seeing two of the best players in the game getting after it would make for great theater, which is exactly what the NHL had in mind when it brought the World Cup back. Yet it may also produce a dash of anxiety for the front office that pays Crosby and Malkin millions to line the rafters at Consol with banners.

It’s a danger both are well aware of, and they’re hardly the only pair of teammates who will find themselves putting country before NHL team chemistry during the tournament. While Crosby allows there’s always the risk of running into each other, at some point you’ve got to just let that part go and focus on playing the game.

“You’re not necessarily thinking `That’s my teammate,’ in a split second,” Crosby said. “Sometimes you might not even know who has the puck.”

Even if Crosby and Malkin are unmistakable with a stick in their hands. Crosby anticipates the smack talk to be kept at a minimum, but didn’t rule out making a run at Malkin if the moment requires it.

“If we do, it’ll be in good fun,” Crosby said with a laugh. “We’re both pretty intense so it could happen. You never know.”

Malkin expects there to be a little chirping, too, but for an entirely different reason. Turns out Crosby is such a motormouth on the ice Malkin doesn’t even bother trying to keep up.

“Sid talks too much every game,” Malkin said. “He talks too quick for me. Actually, when he’s mad, I don’t understand. But he’s funny.”

All kidding aside, the two find themselves with vastly different missions heading to Toronto. The two-time defending Olympic champions are heavy favorites to stand atop the podium on the same soil where the sport was invented.

The Russians, meanwhile, will try to erase the memory of a forgettable 2014 Olympics in Sochi when they were knocked out in the quarterfinals at home. The pressure will be firmly on Canada, giving Russia a chance to play the role of underdog, if a team that includes Malkin and Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin can be considered one.

“We lost the last two Olympics before,” Malkin said. “It’s a new challenge for the national team and we have a great team right now … it’s an amazing time to be here in my second `home’ town playing for the national team.”

Team USA narrowly avoids blowing lead against Finland

via USA Hockey
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For two periods, it seemed like the story would be Team USA finishing off its exhibition schedule with a head of steam. Instead, they stumbled a bit toward the exit.

After falling behind 3-0, Finland scored two goals in the third period and generated some great looks on a late power play. There were more than a few close calls, yet Jonathan Quick & Co. held on for a 3-2 victory.

Yes, it was only an exhibition game, but John Tortorella might want to consider how his team played with a lead.

The United States was pretty dominant through the first two periods, peaking with this beautiful tic-tac-toe goal.

A Derek Stepan breakaway goal ended up standing as the game-winner.

From Finland’s end, Pekka Rinne didn’t exactly demand the starting job with his work at times on Tuesday.

One of the highlights for Finland was Patrik Laine. He scored a goal and seemed to show the kind of trigger-happy, dangerous shooting instincts that Verizon Center fans have experienced with Alex Ovechkin.

Rasmus Ristolainen also looked great at times in this exhibition.

Team USA kicks off its round robin schedule with a game against Europe on Saturday. Finland kicks off its schedule with a match against Team North America on Sunday.

Ryan O’Reilly takes Tyler Seguin’s spot for Team Canada

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Team Canada decided not to wait to announce Tyler Seguin‘s replacement for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, tabbing Ryan O'Reilly as the guy.

As you’d expect from the powerhouse hockey nation, Canada had plenty of great choices to sift through, ranging from the more rugged (Wayne Simmonds?) to the sort of talented player who was drafted before Seguin (Taylor Hall).

O’Reilly is a fine choice, if stylistically quite different from Seguin.

Could be accurate.

With O’Reilly and Patrice Bergeron among Canada’s mix, you won’t find many better two-way combinations in this tournament.

At the moment, the most known about Seguin is that he’s reportedly day-to-day with a knee injury.

The Stars released the following statement about Seguin, who is “disappointed” to back out of the tournament.

Canada’s GM Doug Armstrong also discussed the unfortunate news.

Reality sinks in as P.K. Subban skates with Predators for the first time

via Nashville Predators
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P.K. Subban seems primed to be a great, great fit for the Nashville Predators.

It’s still a little mind-blowing to realize that the trade actually happened, though.

Tuesday presented the latest reminder of that reality, as Subban geared up for the 2016-17 season by skating with his new teammates for the first time. Despite the considerable talent on hand in Nashville, it’s interesting that the team notes the presence of “almost every NHL regular in attendance.”

Aside from a Filip Forsberg here and a Pekka Rinne there, quite a few key Predators aren’t involved in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Subban, of course, stands as the most glaring omission.

That’s not such a bad thing for the Predators, as it gives their new star more time to get acclimated and means that he’ll deal with less exposure to injury risks. Subban notes that he doesn’t skate too often during the off-season, so this is a useful tune-up overall.

Seriously though, it’s still a little weird to see Subban in a Predators jersey: