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.

Who’s hockey’s best? McDavid, Matthews, Crosby stir debate

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TORONTO — Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews? Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid?

With debate ramping up about which player sits atop hockey’s throne – after some remarkable early performances – Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s goes in a different direction – Sidney Crosby.

”This is what I think,” Babcock began as he made his case for the Penguins captain before Pittsburgh’s 3-0 victory over Toronto on Thursday. ”I think one guy’s got two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups.”

And the other guys?

”They don’t.”

McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers captain with blazing speed, has won back-to-back NHL scoring titles and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Matthews, the Maple Leafs’ deadly sniper, has the most points in the league, 16 in just eight games.

McDavid set an NHL record this week by becoming the only player to either score or assist on the first nine goals of his team’s season.

Matthews has a lethal shot that often leaves a goalie looking up at the replay for a glimpse at a puck that just whizzed by him. He is just the fifth player to have seven straight multipoint games to start a season.

Babcock is quick to acknowledge what these 21-year-old phenoms have done. But he says personal accolades matter only so much.

Crosby is 31 and has been on top of the hockey world for the better part of the last decade. He won the Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017 to go along with gold medals for Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

Had it not been for the concussions that limited him to 63 of his team’s 164 games between 2010 and 2012, the two-time Hart and Conn Smythe Trophy winner might own even more hardware.

Babcock coached Crosby at the Vancouver and Sochi Games, and again at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, which Canada also won.

”Team success in the end, that’s how you’re measured,” he said. ”When you’ve been the best player on the best team, to me that’s totally different than being the best player on a team that’s not as good. As you’ve got people around you to raise your game and set a standard … to me, it’s not even close.”

Mike Sullivan became Pittsburgh’s coach during the 2015-16 season and immediately grew to appreciate Crosby’s gifts.

”Sid’s the most driven athlete I’ve ever been around,” he said. ”Not only is he an elite player, but he’s willing to put the work in to continue to try to be the best player he can be. … I have the privilege of watching him on a daily basis put the work in to be the player that he is.”

Toronto center Nazem Kadri says it’s tough to pick among Crosby, McDavid and Matthews.

”I still think Sid’s an incredible player and McDavid’s definitely up there,” he said. ”(Matthews) is creeping up there. … To me, McDavid’s speed is just incredible and so hard to stop. You can’t necessarily make a mistake when he’s on the ice because when you’re beside him you’re going to be behind him.”

Maple Leafs center John Tavares went head-to-head with Crosby for nine seasons while with the New York Islanders.

”He doesn’t take anything for granted and his work ethic’s tremendous,” Tavares said. ”He puts a lot of commitment into being the player that he is.”

Crosby has five assists in six games this season playing on a line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust – the first time he’s gone without a goal this long. But Sullivan’s admiration is undiminished.

”He leaves no stone unturned,” Sullivan said. ”He takes care of himself physically. He trains so hard, both off the ice and on the ice. We learn as much from Sid as I think he does from our coaching staff with just the way he thinks the game.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT Roundtable: Early-season surprises, stand-out stats

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1. Carolina, Montreal, Ottawa, Chicago and Anaheim are off to surprise starts this season. Which team(s) do you see being able to maintain that success throughout this season and why?

SEAN: I can see teams like Carolina and Anaheim cooling off, but not to a degree like Ottawa or Montreal where they’ll fall way to the back of the pack. Then there’s Chicago, who now with Corey Crawford back, stand to be able to keep above water the rest of the season. Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will do what they do and produce up front. It’ll be a matter of secondary scoring helping out. If Crawford stays healthy and regains the form that made him a Vezina Trophy candidate before suffering a concussion last December, the Blackhawks can find a way back to the playoffs.

JAMES: While the threat of bad goaltending looms like Michael Myers around Halloween, the Hurricanes’ deep defense and young offense gives them a great chance to break their interminable playoff drought. The Blackhawks and Ducks have a strong chance to at least be in the West bubble picture if they get some better health luck (even as Jonathan Toews’ shooting luck is certain to cool off at least a bit). Montreal and Ottawa? No, sorry, but at least the Habs might be fun to watch.

ADAM: Off the top of my head I would say most likely Carolina or Anaheim and maybe — MAYBE — Chicago. Anaheim’s hot start seems like it is entirely based off of John Gibson‘s play, and it pretty much is. But he is an elite goalie that can carry a team and they are going to start getting some of their forwards back at some point, at least as far as Ryan Getzlaf and Ondrej Kase are concerned. That will help. Every year I get fooled and sucked in by Carolina but I really think they have some of the right pieces in place, and that defense is pretty legit. It all depends on what sort of goaltending they get. Speaking of, if Corey Crawford comes back healthy and plays well he could be a huge difference-maker for Chicago. They have had a lot of things go their way in the early going, but Crawford can be a game-changer and Jonathan Toews looks like he might be back on track offensively. Montreal and Ottawa are nice early season stories, but I just do not see how either way sustains it.

JOEY: I think the Ducks can keep this rolling. First, John Gibson has arguably been the best goalie in the NHL from the start of the season. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t be dominant more often than not. Secondly, they’ve been able to have success while dealing with a lot of injuries. Ryan Getzlaf, Ondrej Kase, Corey Perry and Patrick Eaves have all missed time early on. At some point, they’re going to start getting healthier which should make them better. The Ducks are in one of the tougher divisions, so they’ll be battling for positioning on a nightly basis, but there’s no reason to think that they can’t keep winning.

SCOTT: Carolina because they have a potent offense that seems to be able to drive possession and put up a pile of shots. That’s a recipe for scoring goals and scoring goals wins games. Their defense seems much improved and if they can get some league average goaltending, book that ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anaheim is the other team, and John Gibsons is a big reason for that. He’s been nothing short of stellar and helps Anaheim pull out some victories when the number of injuries they had might suggest they shouldn’t be winning. And now they’re beginning to get healthy, with names like Getzlaf, Kase, Perry and Kesler all making their way back into the fold. Sure, some of their stars are aging, but there’s still a bevy of talent there to propel them along.

2. What’s the most surprising player/team stat to you so far?

SEAN: Everything Connor McDavid is doing so far this season. I know we shouldn’t be surprised given his all-world talent, but it’s incredible to watch him have an impact on just about every Oilers goal. Edmonton has scored 13 goals through five games and McDavid has been involved in 11 of them with four goals and seven assists. It’s truly maddening to see the Oilers fail to build around him. Let’s hope this trend doesn’t continue as he continues racking up Hart and Art Ross Trophies.

JAMES: Look, the Canadiens boast some nice talent, but their hot start is quite surprising. More than the respectable record is the sheer brilliance of their early play. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Blues, Montreal averaged almost 10 more shots on goal than they’ve allowed so far (36 vs. 26.6). In other words, their strong start isn’t just a matter of dumb luck.

(I still think they’ll miss the playoffs, though.)

ADAM: Probably the fact that Arizona is near the top of the league in shots on goal per game but somehow has still only scored three total goals (as of Thursday) and has not scored a single one at even-strength. How is that even possible? Even if they were near the bottom of the league in shots you would expect more than three goals in five games, even from a bad team. But to put that many pucks on net and still not score is just incredible. They have also been really good defensively so far, both in terms of shots against and goals against. So, like, there is some positive stuff happening there but the offense just quite literally cannot buy a goal right now. It is remarkable.

JOEY: I knew Sebastian Aho was a talented player, but I never expected him to get off to this kind of start. Only Auston Matthews, Patrice Bergeron and Morgan Rielly have collected more points than Aho, who has 12 points in seven games. The ‘Canes have desperately needed a forward to step in and become a go-to guy and it looks like they finally have that person in place. The 21-year-old won’t hit the 141 points he’s currently on pace to score, but he’s off to a really promising start.

As far as team stats go, how about that Sharks power play that’s clicking at 9.5 percent? Once they acquired Erik Karlsson from the Senators, most people assumed that they’d be clicking at an insane rate. That hasn’t been the case just yet. Of course, it’s nothing to be alarmed about if you’re a fan of the Sharks because they’re six games into their season. It’s only a matter of time before they figure out. With Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, Logan Couture and Karlsson on the roster, there’s no reason to think that this power play will continue slumping like it is right now.

SCOTT: New Jersey’s defense and goaltending is very good. Keith Kinkaid has allowed just eight goals in five starts this season. He’s already got two shutouts (and they weren’t against Arizona, either — both came against respectable offenses in Washington and Dallas). He’s arguably the best goalie in the NHL at the moment and I never expected to say that through the first few weeks of the season or, really, ever.

An honorable mention here goes to Carolina. I mentioned them in the first question and they deserve another here. They’re averaging 42 shots a game. A. That’s silly. B. It’s the best in the NHL. And they’re only allowing 25 against, second fewest. It’s no wonder that they’re pacing the Metropolitan Division early on in the season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Coaches win appeal against ban for removing medals at worlds

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ZURICH (AP) — Three coaches who quickly took off their silver medals after last year’s title game at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship have won appeals against bans.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of Sweden head coach Tomas Monten and assistants Nizze Landen and Henrik Stridh. They faced bans of two or three games at the 2019 junior worlds.

The International Ice Hockey Federation says it ”acknowledges the oversight” in rules which previously required only players to wear their medals ”in respectful manner” for the post-game ceremony and interviews.

The IIHF has updated its rules for the next tournament, which starts in December in Canada.

Sweden lost to Canada for the 2018 title in January in Buffalo, New York.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: Huberdeau shootout hero for Panthers; Saros to the rescue

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

A pretty eventful game against the Washington Capitals came to an end thanks to Huberdeau’s winner in the fourth round of the shootout. After the Panthers stormed out to a 4-1 first period lead, the Capitals clawed back in the second to even the score. But it was Huberdeau’s second of the season that gave Florida its lead back. After a Nicklas Backstrom goal late in the third tied it up, we were off to a shootout where Huberdeau ended things to cap off a three-point night in a 6-5 victory.

2. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild

The Wild netminder stopped 33 shots, including 24(!) in the second period during a 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars. Matt Dumba and Ryan Suter scored 3:17 apart midway through the third period to erase a Dallas lead and put Minnesota in front for good.

3. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

Pekka Rinne left the game with 14:51 left in the third period and Saros would stop all nine shots he faced in relief to help secure a 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames. Zac Rinaldo snapped a 3-3 tie 6:31 into the third period for his first of the year. Saros was tested immediately after entering the game, denying Elias Lindholm in tight.

Highlights of the Night

Ryan Suter went with the bank shot for the game-winning goal against the Stars:

Aleksander Barkov continues to be ridiculous in the shootout:

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Panthers 6, Capitals 5 (SO)
Wild 3, Stars 1
Predators 5, Flames 3

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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.