Five questions ahead of U.S.-Canada semifinal showdown

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1. Will the revenge factor work in the Americans’ favor?

“Everyone knows the history of the two teams in Vancouver,” said Sidney Crosby, referring to the 2010 Olympics when the U.S. beat Canada in the preliminary round, only to lose in the gold-medal game. “They’ll be motivated.”

It was the Canadians who were especially motivated four years ago, with all the pressure of hosting the Games on their home ice. Anything less than gold and they’d have experienced something similar to what the Russians are experiencing right now.

According to American forward David Backes, beating the Canadians was “something that was on our list” coming into Sochi.

“We’ve got 13 returners, which are guys really on a mission to avenge our loss in Vancouver in the gold-medal game,” he said.

Watch the game live online Friday at noon

While Backes didn’t want to overstate things — “the team that loses this isn’t shamed out of the tournament,  or anything like that” — he clearly hasn’t forgotten the disappointment he felt when Crosby scored the golden goal.

2. Will the Canadian forwards start scoring?

Given the depth of talent up front, it’s somewhat extraordinary that only four Canadian forwards have managed to score in four games. Crosby remains goalless, as does Corey Perry, Chris Kunitz, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews, and Patrice Bergeron — all of whom have received a considerable amount of ice time from coach Mike Babcock.

Not that they haven’t had their chances.

“I mean, we were all over them,” Crosby said after Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Latvia. “To get that many shots and that many good quality chances, it was tough to not see it go in.”

The next day, Crosby was again forced to answer questions about his lack of statistical production.

VIDEO: Will Canada raise its level pf play vs. U.S.?

“If the chances are there, you can’t really do much besides make sure you focus on putting them in. I don’t think I’m second guessing anything,” he said.

“I’m playing and reacting, trusting that it’s going to go in and sometimes it feels like it’s not going in very easily, but usually it takes one and they all start going in. I think that’s kind of been the theme with our entire team. We’ve been right around there, doing a lot of good things and we just have to trust and keep doing that until eventually the pucks start going in in bunches.”

There also seems to be a sense among the Canadians that playing the U.S. — as opposed to European sides like Norway, Finland, and Latvia — will be a better fit, style wise.

“Looking at some of the teams we played, they focused first and foremost on checking us and making our lives miserable in the offensive zone,” said Toews. “It just seems like you need one, two or three plays to go right for things to work against those teams. Tomorrow, I think we can check well, we can concentrate on our defensive game and try to make them make mistakes.”

3. Will the American forwards keep scoring?

“I think the Americans have scored really easy in the tournament,” said Babcock. “The puck just seems to go in the net for them, so they’ve been a good team. I don’t think they’ve had a match-up, besides the Russians, where they were beat at all. They’ve just beat everyone big time.”

Phil Kessel has led the way for the U.S., with five goals in four games. Backes has three goals. Dustin Brown and Paul Stastny have two each.

Against Canada, however, the Americans will face a team that’s surrendered just three goals all tournament long, and one that features arguably the best blue line in the world as well as two of the most celebrated defensive forwards, Toews and Bergeron, in the sport.

VIDEO: Highlights from U.S. win vs. Czech Republic

“We are not going to try to outshoot a team like Canada,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma. “We are going in with a blue-collar mentality, to outwork them. We want to win a low-scoring game, a 2-1 game.”

4. How will the American defense hold up?

Against the Russians, Ryan Suter was on the ice for almost 30 minutes, with Bylsma shortening his bench to defend a team with a dangerous top six.

Well, the Canadians not only have a dangerous top six, they have a dangerous top 12. Even after losing John Tavares, all four lines are still filled with NHL all-stars, and that can’t be said for any of the teams the U.S. has faced so far.

Suter should play a ton again Friday, as should Ryan McDonagh. But the difference may be in the performance of a youngster like Cam Fowler or Kevin Shattenkirk, or a veteran like Brooks Orpik or Paul Martin.

If the Americans were going to have an Achilles’ heel in Sochi, a lot of people thought it would be the blue line. So far, that hasn’t been the case. But the U.S. hasn’t seen anything like Canada.

5. How will the goaltending story play out?

Because, really, what big hockey game doesn’t end with at least some talk about the goaltenders? Jonathan Quick and Carey Price have both been solid so far. The former has a .935 save percentage in three games; the latter has a .941 save percentage, also in three games.

“When I’ve seen Quick make some big saves early, he seems to become unbeatable,” said Drew Doughty of Quick, his teammate in L.A. “That’s why we’ve got to get one early on him. The only way we’re going to score on him is that we’ve got to get pucks up high, and we’ve got to get screens in front, and tips. He’s going to make the easy saves every time. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s win vs. Latvia

As for Price? “He’s an unbelievable goalie, so skilled. He’s awesome, and he’s come up big when we needed him. And it’s tough for a goalie to play with only 15, 16 shots. It’s not easy, and he’s done an unbelievable job.”

Still, both Bylsma and Babcock have left themselves open to considerable second-guessing given the guys they relegated to the bench. Ryan Miller was brilliant for the U.S. four years ago in Vancouver, and his numbers this season in Buffalo are better than Quick’s in Los Angeles. Roberto Luongo, meanwhile, won gold for Canada in 2010, and he’s got far more big-game experience than Price, even if all those big games haven’t gone particularly well.

Bylsma and Babcock would’ve been left open to second-guessing whichever goalie they went with, but that won’t make the debate any less heated should one of Quick or Price perform poorly on Friday.

Mixed feelings about Anaheim’s ‘Mighty Ducks’ retro-themed third jersey

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When you’re mining nostalgia, there’s a risk of making us old, crusty types grumble about messing with our memories. One of the biggest ways to do that is to fall short when it comes to mixing the old with the new.

(But really, the biggest hurdle comes from our own faulty memories. That’s a discussion for a totally different blog, though.)

The Anaheim Ducks seem to realize that a significant chunk of their fans – and hockey fans who might buy sweaters even if they can’t stand Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf – prefer the goofy, yet lovable, “Mighty Ducks” logo. Between the charm of those looks and the bland, corporate font vibe they have going on right now, it’s pretty easy to understand the appeal.

So, the Ducks are rolling with the old-school look for their third jersey … well, kind of.

The team’s press release mentions that Guy Hebert, the goalie many associate with the team’s early days when they’re not thinking about Paul Kariya, was on hand to model the hybrid retro-new duds. As a reminder, here’s one of the uniforms Hebert sported back in the team’s duckling stages.

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The Ducks’ press release does a good job of capturing the vague “something’s not quite right” feeling about these third jerseys. Their hearts seem to be in the right place, yet there’s just enough “meh” to make this more of a double than a home run.

Anchored in black, the third jersey features the original “Mighty Ducks” crest with eggplant and jade striping from the Ducks iconic look of its inaugural 1993-94 season. Linking the team’s past and present, the jersey incorporates new into old with a touch of the Ducks current orange coloring represented in the crossed hockey sticks of the team’s original mark. Anaheim’s current jersey number and letter styling is used in the new third sweater, providing a cohesive look to the team’s 2018-19 uniform kits, while the interior collar denotes the franchise’s 25th silver season. The first of its kind to subtly incorporate each of the seven colors (Eggplant, Jade, Anaheim Ducks Orange, Anaheim Ducks Gold, Anaheim Ducks Silver, White and Black) the Ducks have worn throughout the club’s 25-year tenure, the jersey also features silver as a primary accent color in both the triangle of the crest and yoke, paying tribute to the team’s generational milestone.

As someone whose artistic abilities peaked at “doodles during high school lectures,” maybe I’m not the person to ask here, but I’d argue that it’s pretty tough to “subtly incorporate” seven colors.

While comparisons to the Sharks’ look rank as some of the better jokes related to this reveal, the unveiling actually reminds me a bit of the Los Angeles Kings. You see, they decided to evoke the Wayne Gretzky silver-and-black look:

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… Yet, at the same time, tinkering in a way that makes grumbly folks like me grumble. In the Kings’ case, the grumbling came from tweaking the logo.

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Each nostalgia-themed jersey got a lot right, and if you asked a focus group to pick favorites, they might go with the new looks. That’s the thing, though. When you’re milking hazy memories, you bring out people’s fussy sides.

Should the Ducks have just followed the Coyotes’ lead in essentially putting out a carbon copy of their old sweaters, rather than this tweaked look? That’s not for us to say.

Actually, scratch that. They should have. This is still pretty cool, though.

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.

Is Dumba’s five-year, $30M a good deal for Wild?

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Matt Dumba‘s been enjoying a meteoric rise up the rankings of the Minnesota Wild’s most important players. Now he’s getting paid as such.

The Wild confirmed that the 23-year-old defenseman signed what should be a fascinating contract to ponder over the years: five years, $30 million (so a $6M cap hit). With that, Dumba becomes the Wild’s third-highest paid player, trailing only the twin monster contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

It’s really remarkable to look at how much Dumba’s numbers leapt during the last three seasons. In 2015-16, he generated 10 goals and 26 points in 81 games despite modest ice time (16:50 per game). Dumba then saw a better role in 2016-17, collecting 11 goals and 34 points while averaging 20:20 minutes per night. Last season is when his numbers went from good to great; he generated an impressive 14 goals and 50 points while logging 23:49 per contest.

While the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs were generally frustrating for the Wild, Dumba’s work provided a tantalizing argument that the best may still be to come. Ryan Suter was on the shelf, so Dumba took charge, averaging a whopping 26:58 per playoff game against the Winnipeg Jets, and not really looking out of place in the process.

That said, Dumba’s possession numbers have generally been pretty run-of-the-mill, so this contract is far from unanimously approved. Wild GM Paul Fenton made some interesting comparisons between Dumba and P.K. Subban, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports (sub required).

“The risk has certainly allowed him to score in double-digit goals, for one,” Fenton said. “It’s hard to find right defensemen who have the ability to game-break, if you will. He’s got a bomb. You look at how guys have molded themselves over the years, there’s a risk-reward factor. P.K. Subban basically does the same thing in a lot of lights. You’re looking at him and saying, ‘Oh my god. He tried that in that particular point in the game or that position in the game.’ As he matures and goes forward, I think it will smooth itself out.”

The dream scenario is for the hockey world to look at the value of Dumba’s contract as an extension of Fenton’s days with the Predators, as Nashville’s knack for signing blooming defensive stars to team-friendly deals can be seen in the bargains for Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. (Subban, as Norris-worthy as he tends to be, isn’t cheap at $9M per year.)

Paying Dumba $6M per season might seem steep today, yet considering the gold rush on defensemen now that Drew Doughty/Oliver Ekman-Larsson signed and Erik Karlsson‘s eventually awaiting a Brinks truck, this could very well be the sort of pact that ages very well.

Then again, it’s no doubt that people are making jokes about other long-term Wild commitments that haven’t exactly aged like fine wine.

During the past three seasons, Dumba’s tied with Ellis for 15th place among NHL defensemen in goals scored with 35. His 110 points during that frame tie him with Jake Muzzin for 29th. When in doubt, you pay young defensemen who can generate offense, and Dumba certainly fits that bill.

(This also allows the Wild and Dumba to avoid salary arbitration.)

Minnesota stands in an odd spot as far as the future goes, as you can notice from all the mockery related to the Parise and Suter deals. As a team that’s been consistently good but rarely able to find the next gear to great, some will be queasy about another player receiving another meaty contract.

That’s not Dumba’s fault, nor is it on Fenton, who is still just beginning his run as Wild GM. If Minnesota’s taking the next step anytime soon, it will be on the back of strong play from young pieces, and Dumba ranks among their most important talents.

For the most part, this is a very fair example of “the cost of doing business,” as Dumba brings a lot to the table. Still, if he remains mixed at best defensively and the Wild struggle overall, the heat could turn up on the player and his team for this contract. So, again, this one will be fascinating to look back on once we gain hindsight.

(Personally, it seems more than reasonable, but time will tell if that inkling is correct.)

This summer stands to get even costlier for the Wild, as Jason Zucker needs a new contract after a breakthrough of his own. His salary arbitration hearing is currently set for July 28, so expect movement on that front in the next week.

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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

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Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

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The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.