Nedved’s ‘strange’ life takes him to Sochi

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SOCHI, Russia — Petr Nedved never expected to be back at the Winter Olympics. Not 20 years after his first and only other Games, where he represented a different country no less. But then, Nedved hasn’t exactly lived a typical life. Perhaps he shouldn’t have counted it out.

“My life has been a strange journey,” Nedved conceded, somewhat jokingly, on Friday. The 42-year-old, now with a graying beard, has traveled to Sochi to play for the Czech Republic, undoubtedly to the surprise of many North American hockey fans who thought he’d long since hung up the skates.

The last time Nedved appeared in an NHL uniform was 2007, as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Since then, he’s been playing – and playing rather well, mind you – in the top Czech league. The last six seasons he’s been piling up points for his hometown club in Liberec.

As for that “strange” life of his? Maybe a better word for it is adventurous.

Let’s start in 1989, when it was still communist Czechoslovakia and Nedved was only 17. During a trip to Calgary for a midget tournament, he snuck away from his team, went to the police, and defected to Canada. His parents said they had no knowledge of his plans.

Following a prolific junior season with the Seattle Thunderbirds, he was drafted second overall by the Vancouver Canucks. He would go on to play 982 NHL games for seven different teams. He would win a silver medal representing Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics. He would even marry, and separate from, a supermodel, Veronika Varekova.

No wonder then that Nedved was in a reflective mood following practice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where he held court with a group of reporters, some of whom had covered him all the way throughout his NHL career.

“I knew that you guys didn’t think I was still playing,” he joked. “Here I am.”

He recalled the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, where his Canadian team ended up eliminating the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. He remembered the “mixed feeling” he had while his teammates were celebrating the win over his former compatriots. He lamented losing the gold-medal game to Sweden in a shootout.

Two decades later – as if it wasn’t improbable enough that he’d be back at the Olympics – one of his teammates will be his old friend, Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr, 41, was drafted fifth overall, three spots after Nedved, also in 1990. The pair played together in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We have the same sense of humor,” said Nedved, “so we don’t even have to say anything and we’re laughing.”

Perhaps they’ll share a laugh over the fact one of Nedved’s teammates back in Liberec is 16 years old.

Why is he still playing with kids less than half his age?

“I love the game,” he said. “I love the competition. I still have the drive.”

These Games will be his swansong, however.

“This is it for me,” he said. “This is the last season of my career. It’s time.”

How much of an impact Nedved will have against the top players in the world remains to be seen. He knows he’s not a young man anymore. Not young for Olympic hockey, anyway.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to play every game,” he said.

But former NHL defenseman and current teammate Tomas Kaberle thinks Nedved can still be a difference-maker.

“Sometimes he needs only one shot, and he’ll put it in,” said Kaberle. “Sometimes one chance in a hockey game makes a big difference.”

The Czech Republic open its Olympic tournament Wednesday versus Sweden.

The Buzzer: Fischer’s hat trick lifts Coyotes, Price ties Roy, Saad arrives

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Three Stars

1. Christian Fischer, Arizona Coyotes. After a miserable start to the season where they could not find the back of the net no matter what they did, the Arizona Coyotes are starting to put it together a little. Their 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night was their second in the past three games. While the return of Alex Galchenyuk should help, it was Christian Fischer playing the role of star in this one as he recorded the hat trick in the win to give him four goals on the season. Derek Stepan recorded the lone assist on all three goals. Dylan Strome scored the other goal on the night for Arizona as the Coyotes scored four consecutive goals to take the win and end their current road trip. They still have a ways to go, but it took them more than 20 games a season ago to win their third game of the season. Progress. There is talent here. Some patience is required.

2. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers. Entering play on Tuesday night there were only two teams in the NHL that had yet to win a game in regulation this season. They just so happened to be playing in New York when the Rangers hosted the Florida Panthers. It was the Rangers that ended up getting the win thanks in large part to Mika Zibanejad. He finished the game with three points, including two goals (one of two Rangers players — Mats Zuccarello being the other — to score two goals on the night) to help lift the Rangers to the win.

3. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks. Saad has been under the microscope in Chicago for two reasons: First, he simply has not played well since returning to the Blackhawks at the start of the 2017-18 season. Second, the guy that was traded for him — Artemi Panarin — has continued to be a star in Columbus and has been one of the best players in the league. The Blackhawks have said they need, and want, more from Saad and on Tuesday night they finally got it. He scored a pair of goals, including one on the power play, an area where he struggled mightily a year ago, to help lead the Blackhawks to a 3-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks.

Southern California’s hockey teams are not having fun

The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are not off to good starts. At all. The Kings have been a mess all season and dropped yet another game on Tuesday, losing in Dallas by a 4-2 margin. They are now the worst team in the Western Conference through nine games and just keep looking like a team that needs a fresh start and a new direction. This group is just not working anymore.

Meanwhile, the Ducks’ record looks better but the actual play on the ice doesn’t. Starting goalie John Gibson was great once again on Tuesday night, turning aside 36 out of 38 shots. It is the fifth time this season he has made at least 36 saves in a game. He has allowed more than two goals in just one of those five games. His team has only managed to win one of those five games. He has been amazing, and perhaps the most impressive player in the league so far. The team in front of him, not so much.

The Burns-Karlsson connection clicks for San Jose

San Jose’s two Norris Trophy winning defensemen teamed up for the game-winning goal in Nashville on Tuesday night as the Sharks erased two-goal third period deficit to storm back for a 5-4 win.

Read all about it and see all of the highlights here.

Highlights of the Night

The Boston Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is arguably the best line in the NHL. They dominated again on Tuesday night in Ottawa and this play by Marchand to set up Pastrnak for his second goal of the game was a thing of beauty.

Sidney Crosby did this thing in overtime, making an emphatic statement in the best player debate that has been taking place so far this season.

Factoids

The Montreal Canadiens continue to be a surprise team and Carey Price continues to play well. These two things are related. Speaking of Carey Price, Tuesday’s win was a big one for him as it continues to move him up the Canadiens’ all-time wins list, tying him with a very important player.

Scores

Arizona Coyotes 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

New York Rangers 5, Florida Panthers 2

Montreal Canadiens 3, Calgary Flames 2

Boston Bruins 4, Ottawa Senators 1

San Jose Sharks 5, Nashville Predators 4

Chicago Blackhawks 3, Anaheim Ducks 1

Dallas Stars 4, Los Angeles Kings 2

Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Edmonton Oilers 5 (OT)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sidney Crosby makes emphatic statement in best player debate

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Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews.

Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid.

That is the discussion some folks around NHL have been trying to hold regarding which one of them is the new best player in the NHL.

Well, Sidney Crosby would like to remind you that … yeah … it might still be him.

If nothing else, he has made a pretty compelling argument for himself over the past week.

Crosby scored his first two goals of the season on Tuesday night to help lead his Pittsburgh Penguins to a wild 6-5 win over McDavid and the Oilers.

It’s not that McDavid didn’t also show up in this game; because he did, scoring a goal and assisting on another. But Crosby delivered the emphatic punch in overtime when he scored one of the most ridiculous goals of the season (so far) when he completely obliterated Ryan Strome (not a defenseman! And he was tired at the end of extended shift!) and did this … with McDavid standing right next to it all.

My goodness.

This has been a fascinating week for Crosby as it relates to the “best player” debate, because his past two games have come against Toronto (Matthews) and Edmonton (McDavid) and he spent an awful lot of ice-time going head-to-head against both of them.

For the most part, he completely dominated them.

On Thursday night in Toronto he spent eight minutes of even-strength ice-time going against Matthews (more than any other Toronto forward).

Not only did Matthews fail to record a point or a shot, the Maple Leafs as a team didn’t even get a shot on goal during those minutes.

Over the two games total Crosby spent more than 20 minutes of even-strength ice-time going head-to-head against McDavid and Matthews. During those minutes the Penguins scored the only goal (Crosby’s overtime winner on Tuesday) and controlled more than 65 percent of the shot attempts.

At this point Sidney Crosby has entered the “latter day Steve Yzerman” phase of his career.

When Yzerman was a young player in Detroit he was such a monster offensively that if he played in any other era that didn’t have Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing at the exact same time he probably would have been regarded as the best offensive player in the league.

He was incredible.

Then around the time he hit his 30th birthday the offense started to drop off. It was — and still is — often times looked at as him sacrificing offense to improve his defense for the betterment of the team; but the more likely explanation is that he just got a little older and simply was not capable of scoring 120 points anymore.

So his game evolved and he became a ferocious two-way player that could take over games in other ways.

This is where Sidney Crosby is now.

He is in his age 31 season, and as such he is simply not going to be the offensive force he was when he was 24 or 25. He is still going to be capable of doing things like he did on Tuesday night when he ruined Ryan Strome’s night and posterized him, but he is not going to be the 110-point scoring champion every year. I mean, he has been an 89-point player pretty much four years in a row, and while that is still in the top 1 percent of the entire league, it is probably not going to result in a scoring title. This is what he is as an offensive player at this point, and that is fine.

But he is going to find other ways to impact the game and dominate it even when he is not lighting up the score sheet the way he once did. That is pretty much what he did the past two games when he went against the latest two players the hockey world has attempted to elevate above him, and completely outplayed them. If your best player can go against the other team’s best player and shut them down and cancel them out, you are going to have a lot of success.

He is also still on occasion going to do things like that overtime winner on Tuesday night.

(Stats in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

 

Sharks storm back, stun Predators with late rally

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Tuesday’s game in Nashville seemed like it could have been a potential Western Conference Final preview between the San Jose Sharks and Predators, and for 50 minutes it looked like the Predators were going to continue to assert their dominance as the elite team in the conference.

Maybe they still are and ultimately still will be, but on this particular night everything fell apart for them in the blink of an eye as they let two points slip away in the standings.

The Sharks scored three consecutive goals in the final 10 minutes of regulation, including two less than 40 seconds apart to erase a two-goal deficit, to come back for a stunning 5-4 win.

Brent Burns‘ goal with just 2:52 to play proved to be the game-winner, and it was made possible thanks to quick goals from Brendan Dillon and Joe Pavelski just a few minutes earlier to tie the game.

Burns’ goal can be seen in the video above.

Here are the two goals to tie the game.

After acquiring Erik Karlsson over the summer and re-signing Evander Kane to a long-term contract extension the Sharks, a team that was already good enough to make the second-round of the playoffs a year ago, entered the season as one of the hot picks to win the Western Conference this season and compete for the Stanley Cup.

Through their first eight games entering play on Tuesday they had been a little inconsistent but it seems they may be starting to hit their stride a little bit. The win in Nashville is their third in a row and comes on the road against one of the league’s best teams. After winning the Western Conference two years ago, then taking the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago as the NHL’s best team during the regular season, the Predators stormed out of the gate again this season with wins in seven of their first eight games, and looking particularly dominant in the process.

Tuesday’s game was a great test for both teams, and all they did was show that they are two evenly matched, great rosters that are going to have a chance to play very far into the spring.

If this game was any preview of what is to come it would be one heck of a best-of-seven series (if it happens).

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Bruins rookie Vaakanainen concussed by Borowiecki; Discipline coming?

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Already playing without a couple of defenders (Torey Krug, Kevan Miller) the Boston Bruins lost another one on Tuesday night when rookie Urho Vaakanainen, playing in just his second NHL game, had to leave their game against the Ottawa Senators after he was elbowed in the face by Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki during a scramble around the front of the Ottawa net.

The Bruins later announced that Vaakanainen has already been diagnosed with a concussion.

You can see the play in the video above.

He was not penalized on the play, but that is not a good look for Borowieckiy because you can clearly see him look at Vaakanainen as he skates in and deliberately raise his elbow to hit him in the head.

I get that the front of the net is a tough area, but this isn’t 1980 anymore and that type of needless play should not be looked at as “okay” just because there is a scramble.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will almost certainly review that play and he could be be facing some discipline for it. If the NHL determines it is a play worthy of discipline that could be bad news for Borowiecki because he has been suspended once before and the player on the receiving end of his hit was injured. Those two things always factor into the punishment.

Vaakanainen was the selected by the Bruins in the first-round of the 2017 draft with the No. 18 overall pick.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.