Who are the hottest goalies going into the Olympics?

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As we’ve seen since NHLers began participating in the Winter Olympics in ’98, one hot goalie can make a world of difference.

Dominik Hasek stole the show en route to the Czechs capturing gold in Nagano. Finnish netminder Antero Niittymaki was named tournament MVP for the silver medal-winning Finns in 2006. Ryan Miller did much of the same in Vancouver, capturing MVP honors as the U.S. lost to Canada in the gold medal game.

So… which netminders are looking sharp heading into Sochi?

United States: Miller and Jonathan Quick

American head coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t tip his hand as to who would start in Sochi — “that’s not a question I’m ready to answer,” he told NHL.com on Friday — but Quick didn’t do himself any favors last week when he got hooked in a 4-1 loss to the Penguins.

Quick’s two games since weren’t great, either. He gave up two goals on 13 shots in a loss to Philly on the weekend, then got torched for five goals on 30 shots in a loss to Chicago two nights ago.

Miller, meanwhile, was hooked in his last outing — a 7-1 drubbing by Colorado — but had been playing well prior to that, allowing six goals over three games. He’ll have a big chance to make a mark on Bylsma tonight, as he’ll start when the Sabres host the Pens on NBCSN.

Canada: Carey Price and Roberto Luongo

Head coach Mike Babcock told Sportsnet radio Price and Luongo will likely split Canada’s first two games — against Norway and Austria — but wouldn’t say which goalie would start when Canada opens against the Norwegians on Feb. 13.

Price has been rock solid lately, rebounding from a rough stretch in January when he allowed at least four goals in five straight games. He’s given up just four goals over his last four starts and posted shutouts over Calgary (27 saves) and Carolina (36 saves).

Luongo has been average over his last five, winning just once while allowing 16 goals.

Czech Republic: Ondrej Pavelec

Pavelec might be the NHL’s most improved netminder over recent weeks, as his play took a noted uptick after the coaching change from Claude Noel to Paul Maurice. Pavelec is 7-2-0 since the switch, putting up quality wins in Anaheim (stopping 40 of 42 shots) and Carolina (stopping 28 of 29). It’s a far cry from the substandard play he displayed in the early parts of the season, and that has to be a boon for the Czechs heading into Sochi.

Sweden: Henrik Lundqvist

Here’s the big one. Lundqvist’s been outstanding lately and is peaking at the right time. He’s held opponents to two or fewer goals in nine of his last 10 games — going 8-2-0 over that stretch — and stopped 27 shots against Colorado in a 5-1 win on Tuesday. Sweden boasts one of the deepest and most talented rosters at the Olympics and will be a formidable foe should Lundqvist continue this run.

Finland: Tuukka Rask

Assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen wouldn’t commit to which goalie — Rask, Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen — would start in Sochi, but it’s widely speculated the B’s netminder will get the call. Rask’s been a model of consistency all season long and, save for some sketchy goals allowed in mid-January, has been one of the NHL’s best goalies this year, boasting a 25-13-3 record with a 2.09 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Slovakia: Jaroslav Halak

Halak continues to platoon with Brian Elliott in the St. Louis goal, but he’ll be the clear-cut No. 1 for the Slovaks in Sochi. Halak’s biggest issue, as it’s been for a while, is with consistency. Check out his last 10 games:

source:

Good overall, but some big letdown games in the mix. The Slovaks will hope that Halak can get on a crazy hot streak, much like what he did with Montreal during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Russia: The hosts have to be thrilled with their options in goal. Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky have both been great over the last month — Bobrovsky went 8-2-0 in January with a .926 save percentage, while Varlamov thrived in the face of some really high shot totals (he beat Chicago with 46 saves, Dallas with 41 and Florida with 34.)

At this point, there’s no clear-cut favorite as to who’ll start when Russia opens the tournament against Slovenia, but either option will be a quality one.

Switzerland: It stands to reason Jonas Hiller will be facing a lot of rubber in Sochi, as Switzerland was drawn into a group with the Czechs and Swedes. Thankfully for the Swiss, Hiller is enjoying a tremendous campaign in Anaheim — he was named one of the three stars for December and earned a star of the week in January. Hiller’s 24-8-4 on the year with a 2.35 GAA and .915 save percentage, but has cooled off of late by losing four of his last five starts.

The rest: Slovenia, Austria, Norway and Latvia don’t have any goalies currently playing in the NHL. The closest is Latvia’s Kristers Gudļevskis, currently playing for Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. Gudlevskis is 10-8-2 for the Crunch this season, with a 2.78 GAA and .898 save percentage.

Skinner leaves game after leg injury, makes third period return

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For a second there, it looked horrible.

Jeff Skinner, writhing in pain on the ice after a gruesome-looking leg injury and having to be helped off the ice by teammates and then helped down the tunnel by trainers, seemed to be in bad shape.

The 26-year-old got tangled up with newly-acquired Washington Capitals forward Carl Hagelin during the second period of Saturday’s game.

Hagelin got his stick between Skinner’s shin pads and the latter’s left skate picked into the ice, twisting his ankle in ways it should not.

Skinner was in obvious pain as soon as he hit the deck, at one point trying to push with his right leg toward the Sabres bench.

He missed the rest of the second period but remarkably, given the video you just watched, returned for the third, much to the surprise of everyone.

Skinner laughed when he told Buffalo News Sports’ Lance Lysowki that the team has good training staff. Skinner said he felt pain immediately after the play but was fine once he got to the room to test it.

“There’s a lot of things that go through your mind,” Skinner said. “At first you’re just wondering what’s wrong with it. …The tests went pretty well and I was able to come back.”

Skinner has been a godsend for the Sabres with 36 goals, just one off his career-high set two seasons ago when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Sabres splashed for Skinner in the offseason and he’s been worth every penny in the final year of his six-year, $34.350 million contract.

The Sabres sit seven points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and had just three wins in their past 10 games heading into Saturday.


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

Oilers’ CEO not a fan of Connor McDavid suspension

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The Edmonton Oilers are none too pleased with the National Hockey League’s decision to suspend Connor McDavid two games for his headshot on New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy on Thursday night.

Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson defended McDavid during a meeting with the media on Saturday before the team took to the ice for their pre-game skate.

“We’re really disappointed with the NHL’s decision,” Nicholson said. “This is a first-time offense for Connor. Everyone knows Connor is a skilled player and I thought he did a very good job explaining what he was doing before there was contact with Leddy.”

The hit in question took place at the 17:32 mark of the first period. McDavid was handed a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head on the play. Leddy stayed down for a bit and was summoned for concussion testing but returned for the second period and played out the rest of the game.

McDavid went on to score the overtime winner in a 4-3 win.

Nicholson said McDavid’s intent heading into the hit was to strip the puck from Leddy and when he realized he couldn’t do that, became small and didn’t try to level Leddy.

Nicholson then argued the hit’s principle point of contact (although it clearly was) wasn’t the head.

“I thought the contact started at the chest and there was a deflection into the head but it was a slight deflection into the head,” Nicholson said.

McDavid figured he wouldn’t be suspended prior to the hearing and figured he raised some good points about the hit, but said that once he heard the tone of the voice once in the meeting, he knew that wouldn’t be the case.

“I think a lot of times, you go in and they already have their mind made up,” McDavid said. “They don’t really care what you have to say.”

McDavid said it’s frustrating given that it’s a crucial time for the Oilers. Edmonton sits eight points back of the Minnesota Wild for the second wildcard in the Western Conference heading into Saturday’s action. The Oilers battle the Ducks later on in the day, who are one point ahead of them in the standings. Edmonton needs to leapfrog six teams over their next 22 games to head to the playoffs.

Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock said he feels McDavid deserved better but said the team can’t worry about it right now.

“We just have to keep going,” Hitchcock said. “Fighting the fight isn’t going to do us any good right now.

What goes on, suspension-wise, I’m even sure I know all the rules, to be honest with you,” Hitchcock said.

McDavid was non-committal on appealing the decision. Nicholson said he didn’t think McDavid would.


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

Stars acquire defenseman Lovejoy in trade with Devils

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DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Stars acquired veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

The Stars sent defenseman Connor Carrick and a 2019 third-round draft pick to the Devils in the deal reached two days before the NHL’s trade deadline.

Lovejoy is an 11-year veteran and defensive specialist who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. He was second on the Devils with 77 blocked shots while playing a key penalty-killing role. He has two goals and seven points in 51 games this season and 20 goals and 99 points in 524 career games.

General manager Jim Nill called Lovejoy ”an experienced, battle-tested player who has a track record of performing in meaningful late-season games.”

With Marc Methot out after season-ending knee surgery last month and Stephen Johns (neck/head) having not played this season, Lovejoy is a boost to the Dallas defense. The Stars reacquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak from Pittsburgh in a trade last month.

The trade comes with Dallas seeking to keep pace in the congested Western Conference playoff race in which five points separate the seventh-place Stars and 12th-place Vancouver.

Dallas was 2-4-1 in its past seven games going into Saturday’s home game against Carolina. The Stars were coming off a 5-2 win Thursday over St. Louis that snapped a franchise-record 11-game winning streak by the Blues.

New Jersey was 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference.

The 24-year-old Carrick had a goal and four points in 14 games with the Stars this season.

Lovejoy was a healthy scratch when the Devils played Thursday against Ottawa. Lovejoy had a plus-one rating in his 51 games, one of only two New Jersey’s regulars in the positive.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Innovations allow NHL to stage outdoor games almost anywhere

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Dan Craig sleeps maybe four hours a night leading up to outdoor games. He only goes out to dinner because he can check the status of the ice on his phone.

”Your mind’s always going,” said Craig, the NHL’s vice president of facilities operations.

After staging outdoor games in a deep freeze (Edmonton) and summerlike warmth (Los Angeles), the NHL seems capable of taking hockey outside just about anywhere in the U.S. and Canada knowing the ice will be almost as good as the sheets found inside.

When the Flyers host the Penguins on Saturday night, it will be the 27th NHL outdoor game since 2003. Next season’s Winter Classic is at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where the average high on Jan. 1 is 56 degrees (13.3 Celsius).

No worries, hockey fans.

”We put the parameters out there as into what we feel the challenges are going to be at a certain climate in a certain area and this is what we’re going to run up against,” said Craig, who has worked all but two outdoor games. ”And if we have to go to get different equipment, we go get different equipment. If we need more staff, we just go get more qualified people to come in and give us a hand to make sure that everything works the way it’s supposed to.”

Weather is the biggest hurdle that can’t be controlled. It is instead managed by Craig, his son Mike, senior facilities operations manager Derek King and the 100-person crews that work each game. As he sat on the boards Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field, Craig pointed to the sky and acknowledged the swirling wind was on his mind.

Still, improved technology and techniques learned over the past 15 years have helped perfect the science and execution of making and maintaining outdoor ice.

”It seems like they’ve streamlined the process so they know how to react and how to handle different elements,” said Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk, a veteran of five outdoor games. ”For the last few that I’ve been in, it’s all been pretty good. … If you can start with that, that leads to a better product in the game.”

It starts with a 53-foot refrigeration truck that feeds coolant into aluminum trays set up on the field, and while indoor facilities have ice typically an inch or so deep, outdoor rinks go beyond 2 inches to protect the surface from the elements. Smaller Zambonis have less impact on the ice, and covering the surface with heat-reflecting insulation tarps helps. The ice can be monitored with sensors that provide real-time readings to a smartphone app.

The ideal ice temperature is 22 degrees (-5.5 Celsius), but all was fine in Denver in 2016 when the air temperature was 65 (18.3 Celsius) because officials can just turn the A/C up.

”When we’re monitoring the air temperature we’ll just make the sheet colder,” King said. ”If we can keep it in the in the mid-40s, it would be great. But we’ve got a lot of control. … We have a lot of control of the truck, so we can manipulate our temperatures on the sheet with the air temperature.”

Craig remembers the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor: The snow shoveling started at 5 a.m. and never really stopped. The sun has been just as big an impediment – it delayed the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia because the glare was considered a danger to players. The ice at the 2011 Heritage Classic in Calgary had to be covered because it was so cold there were worries the surface would crack, the most concerned Craig has ever been.

The tarps with air bubbles inside became a mainstay beginning in 2014 at Dodger Stadium to combat the Southern California sun as temperatures soared to almost 80 (26.7 Celsius) in the days before the game.

”Sun was a huge issue for us in just the temperature on the ice, so we kind of came up with a system of how to cover the ice and reflect that sun,” King said. ”We still use those same ideas anywhere we go.”

The Dodger Stadium experience showed the NHL’s ice crew it could adapt to just about any situation. Previous weather dilemmas also taught Craig and his staff they couldn’t just leave snow on the ice like so many nature-made rinks in cold climates, which paid dividends this week in Philadelphia when snow turned to sleet and then rain.

”Everybody’s looking at us like, ‘Why don’t you just leave the snow?’ Well, it’s going to cause us 18 hours of work if we don’t get the snow off, like, right now,” Craig said. ”(If) it happened to rain, the top is going to freeze and then the bottom is going to be nice and soft. Well, no. Where we were, it just goes all the way through and then it freezes to the bottom. Those are the types of things that we have learned over time: how to manage the different circumstances that were put into.”

There are three more outdoor games next season – in Regina, Saskatchewan, Dallas and the Air Force Academy in Colorado – and trips to Nashville and maybe even Las Vegas could be coming someday.

Craig doesn’t see any challenge as too daunting and he is focused on giving players an unforgettable experience.

”They step out there for the first time and they do about three laps around and the grins and their eyes are just phenomenal,” he said. ”They’ve always been in organized hockey, they’ve always been indoors, they’ve always traveled and all of a sudden they get their chance. That’s when you see the guys and you just see them, they’re beaming because this the first time, they’re getting paid for it, they’re playing a game that they love and they’re playing it outdoors where we started.”

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