PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Can goaltending carry Finland through?

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Finland may enter the 2014 Winter Olympics with some questions surrounding its forward depth, but the team’s goaltending is rock solid.

The Finns have arguably the best depth in the tournament with Boston’s Tuukka Rask, San Jose’s Antti Niemi and Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen. It’s believed Rask will eventually emerge the starter, though there could be an early audition among the three.

“I don’t know,” Rask told CBS Boston about how the situation will play out. “We have three No. 1 goalies. We each get a game or something.”

Fans may wonder if goaltending can be the be-all, end-all in the Olympics. Often times it’s absolutely true, something Finland can attest to — at the 2006 Games in Turin, the Finns made it to the gold medal game against Sweden thanks to ex-Flyers and Bolts goalie Antero Niittymaki.

Niittymaki was the tourney MVP and one Nicklas Lidstrom goal away from earning Finland a gold medal. (Further to Finland’s goalie depth, consider this Niittymaki only started in Turin after Lehtonen and Miikka Kiprusoff dropped out.)

History shows goaltending can win it all. Dominik Hasek backstopped the Czech Republic to gold in 1998 after allowing just six goals through the tournament while posting wins against the United States, Canada, and Russia in the elimination rounds.

Clearly, goaltending isn’t an issue for Finland. Goalscoring could be, though.

The Finns have lost the services of Mikko Koivu (35 points in 44 games) and Valtteri Filppula (41 in 56) to ankle injuries. KHL centers Jarkko Immonen and Samri Salminen will take their spots, but that still puts pressure on Olli Jokinen, Aleksander Barkov and Mikael Granlund to provide strength down the middle.

On the wings, Teemu Selanne is the venerable leader playing in his sixth Olympic Games. Lauri Korpikoski and Tuomo Ruutu make for solid two-way forwards, but Finland is a team built on working together, not as individual parts. Team Finland assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen says he expects the team to pester and annoy opponents on the way to victory.

The truth here, however, is the Finns look, on paper, to be thin at forward and defense. That’ll put the pressure on Rask and his fellow goalies to play at their best.

Rask’s success in his short career in the NHL has shown he can handle the load, but his international experience is limited. He last represented Finland at the World Junior Championships in 2007, and has yet to play in a World Championship.

You could argue going deep in the NHL playoffs makes for a strong enough resume and you’d probably be right. But every great goalie needs to have goals to support him — and that could by the Finns’ biggest worry.

Gritty’s grand entrance highlights Stadium Series pregame

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PHILADELPHIA — Right after some current and retired Philadelphia sports stars and legends — Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Clarke, Boban Marjanović — were introduced to the Lincoln Financial Field crowd, the real star of the city took center stage.

All week long, Gritty had been teasing some sort of big stunt before Saturday’s Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Sure enough, just before the players entered the field, there was Gritty standing on top of the stadium wearing an lit up LED suit. Braving the elements, Gritty then jumped off and flew via zipline to the field as the teams began to walk out.

We knew Gritty was comical, but we didn’t know it had a bit of daredevil inside.

While the crowd went nuts, Gritty’s grand entrance didn’t sit too well with one NHL mascot.

Gritty’s mainstream popularity is big enough that some serious mascot-on-mascot chirping might become a regular thing. We’re all for it.

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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.

Trade: Stars land Zuccarello; Rangers get what could be great picks

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The New York Rangers sent Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars in a fascinating trade on Saturday, and the conditions of that deal will mean that Rangers fans will have incentive to cheer Zuccarello on — even beyond simply liking the guy.

(And that shouldn’t be difficult, because Rangers fans really – justifiably – love the undersized winger.)

Conditional draft picks are becoming more and more in vogue heading into the 2019 trade deadline, but this situation is especially interesting.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that trade details work out this way. (Note: please keep in mind that the exact specifics haven’t been confirmed by the teams, although McKenzie’s TSN colleague Darren Dreger confirmed that Zuccarello is indeed Dallas- bound.)

Stars receive: Mats Zuccarello.

Rangers’ rather complicated but interesting side: For one thing, the Rangers retain 30-percent of Zuccarello’s salary.

Conditional pick 1: Begins as a 2019 second-round pick.

That 2019 second-rounder gets bumped up to a first-rounder if the Stars win at least two playoff rounds during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Conditional pick 2: Begins as a 2020 third-round pick.

That 2020 third-rounder turns into a 2020 first-rounder if the Stars re-sign Zuccarello.

So, at worst, the Rangers receive second and third-rounders for Zuccarello, but could end up with one or even two first-rounders depending upon how this works out. Wow.

A bit more on those picks

As of this writing, the Stars are ranked as the West’s first wild-card team. They’re unlikely to catch the Blues for the third Central spot, and face some competition in even staying in the full playoff picture.

But if they maintain their current spot, things get interesting.

The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators came into 2018-19 as the West’s most popular picks (along with the Sharks, probably?) for a deep run, but both teams have been experiencing some struggles here and there. The Stars would still be beating odds if they made a deep enough run to win two playoff rounds, but it’s not impossible, especially if they add even more after landing Zuccarello and Ben Lovejoy.

(Frankly, the Lovejoy trade is … underwhelming.)

There’s a decent-enough chance that the Stars might want to re-sign Zuccarello, too. As you can see from this post, Dallas is in a position to have a lot of cap space to work with in 2019-20, so maybe they’d keep the splendidly talented winger around with an extension?

More to come.

Trade: Blue Jackets load up with Dzingel; Senators load up on picks

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are eliminating any doubts that they’re going all-in this season. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators are going all-out … as in, trading everyone out.

One day after the Blue Jackets sent a bunch of assets to Ottawa for Matt Duchene, the two teams made another significant swap on Saturday. The Blue Jackets landed another Senators center in Ryan Dzingel, while picks are the biggest takeaways for the Senators.

The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman are among those who report these full trade terms:

Blue Jackets receive: Ryan Dzingel, Calgary Flames’ 2019 seventh-round pick.

Senators get: Anthony Duclair, 2020 second-rounder, 2021 second-rounder.

This post will be updated with more analysis soon.

Carolina, Columbus wins highlight Stadium Series’ importance for Pens

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Saturday night won’t feel like any other night for the Penguins and Flyers. It’s just human nature.

How can you not be distracted by the pageantry of an outdoor game and all of the hoopla that comes with it? From dealing with those unique environs to wondering if such an environment will even allow for competitive hockey (thanks a lot, rain), there’s just a lot going on.

That’s something to consider for any such contest, yet when it happens this late into February, the teams involved really need to find a way to focus. With the Flyers virtually out of the race, the onus is then on the Penguins to make sure they win Saturday’s game. After all, if the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began at this very moment, the Penguins would be out of the mix.

[Penguins say the right things]

As you can see in the post linked above, the Penguins were already emphasizing that they’re focused on getting this win coming into the weekend, but recent events really cement that this isn’t just a fun event for the Pens.

Blue Jackets move up, and make a big move

Earlier this week, the Penguins moved ahead of the Blue Jackets, but that margin was smaller than it seemed because Columbus had two games in hand.

The Blue Jackets won both of those games, impressively beating the Senators on Friday and Sharks on Saturday by a combined score of 7-0. This leaves the Penguins two full points behind Columbus heading into the 2019 Stadium Series that’s moments away.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBC]

Blue Jackets (third place in Metro): 35-23-3, 73 points, 35 regulation/overtime wins, 61 games played
Penguins (ninth place in East): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

The good news for the Penguins is that they have quite a bit of control of their own fate against Columbus. They place against the Blue Jackets three more times this season, with those head-to-head matches all coming by March 9.

The bad news is that they’ll be facing a more loaded version of this Blue Jackets team, if Columbus decides to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for the rest of the season, as trading for Matt Duchene makes a good team far scarier to face.

So … finishing ahead of the Blue Jackets won’t be easy.

Hurricanes storm past Pittsburgh, too

The Hurricanes also shut out their opponents on Saturday, as Carolina beat the Dallas Stars 3-0. That win gives the Hurricanes a small lead for the East’s second wild-card spot, at least for now:

Hurricanes (second WC): 33-23-6, 72 points, 32 ROW, 62 GP
Penguins (ninth place): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

While Columbus has a decent (though far from insurmountable) edge on Pittsburgh, the gap between the Hurricanes and Penguins is tiny. Carolina and Pittsburgh also face each other two more times in 2018-19, so far all we know, the East’s bubble races could come down to those games.

(The Blue Jackets and Hurricanes meet one more time in the regular season: a March 15 contest in Carolina.)

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The last 24 hours or so haven’t been kind to the Penguins’ playoff hopes, yet the fierce challenges from Columbus and Carolina should at least keep Pittsburgh alert. Of course, if any team would love to spoil things for the Penguins, wouldn’t it be the Flyers?

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.