U.S. past ‘miracle’ stage in Olympic hockey (except vs. Canada)

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SOCHI, Russia – This seems to be the Olympics when everyone around United States hockey officially got sick of the Miracle on Ice. Well, it was inevitable. With the Olympics being in Russia, with famed Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (who was pulled in the Miracle) lighting the torch, with my generation reaching the age of cloying nostalgia and with the U.S. men’s team looking for its first Olympics hockey gold since that 1980 team, everything pointed to overkill.*

*Which I happily participated in.

Thing is, hockey in America is nothing like it was in 1980. This was the point the U.S. hockey team kept hammering. Everything has changed. Now, professional hockey players are at the Olympic. Now, the U.S. team has some of the best players in the world. Now, the U.S. team has speed and size and depth that is the envy of almost every hockey-playing country in the world. When the U.S. team played Russia this time around, it was the Americans who were favored, and the Americans who played the villains when they got a favorable call and won in a gritty shootout.

So, yes, everybody was ready to move on from the constant reminders about a bunch of college hockey players who won a gold medal 34 years ago.

Trouble is, to get people to stop talking about the Miracle on Ice, you have to stop losing one-goal games to Canada when it matters most.

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s 1-0 win

The U.S. did lose another one-goal game to Canada in an Olympic semifinal Friday … this after the U.S. women one day earlier lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game … this after the U.S. men lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game in Vancouver, one of the most famous hockey games ever played.

To be fair, the United States’ 1-0 loss to Canada was different from the others. It felt cleaner and did not leave much room for regret. That’s because the Canadians pretty thoroughly outplayed the Americans. Was it not for some head-stand saves from Jonathan Quick – “our best player tonight,”  U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said – the score easily could have been 3-0 or 4-0.

Meanwhile the “0” on the American end of the score was more or less locked in. It is hard to imagine a team playing more suffocating defense than Canada played Friday. The U.S. power play was rendered all but useless. And other than a couple of moderate chances early and Paul Stansny’s point-blank shots in front in the second period, the U.S. rarely even threatened to score.

VIDEO: U.S. can’t find an empty net in final minute

The game was played at a high level—the speed on the ice was mesmerizing — and it was entertaining in its own way. But it really was quite a let-down from the famous gold medal game of four years ago. Well, for one thing that was a gold-medal match, while this was a semifinal just to see who would play Sweden for gold. That was a quirk in the seeding, and it definitely altered some of the emotion.*

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Then there was the quiet. Here you had the two best hockey teams on earth – two of the most talented hockey teams ever put together – and it was so eerily quiet in the Bolshoy Ice Palace. Every now and again, a hearty soul would try to start up a U-S-A chant or beg the Canadians to finish one of their numerous goal-scoring chances and then it would dissolve into stillness.

Much of the time, the arena was quiet enough to read bedtime stories aloud.

So strange … but then maybe not. No event at these Olympics brought so much pain to the host country as hockey. The Russian hockey team lost to the U.S. in the aforementioned shootout that was, for many Americans, the emotional peak of these Olympics and was for Russian fans the very symbol of fraud. A goal-ahead goal by the Russians was nullified because the cage of the net was slightly off its mooring. Russians who even conceded the point that the net WAS off still believed that U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had been the one to knock it off. Angry fans demonstrated in Moscow. Television networks replayed the disallowed goal again and again.

Then, more disconcerting, the Russian team disappeared in a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland that featured no controversy and also no life from a gifted collection of Russian players who never quite came together.

So, it is logical that there simply wasn’t much enthusiasm left for the sport. Tack on the Russians’ famous reticence – something that various non-Russian figure skaters noticed during their soundless programs – and what you had was a striking lack of energy and volume. We grow so used to the biggest sporting events being loud and the tension being almost tangible.

But Friday, early in the second period, Canada’s Jay Bouwmeester – a tough defenseman not necessarily known for his playmaking abilities – slapped a pass that Jamie Benn deflected over Quick to give Canada that 1-0 lead. And then the rest of the game just kind of melted away almost unnoticed. Those sounds you associate with a close and important hockey game – the roars for developing chances, the groans when shots slip wide, the gasps when the winning team narrowly escapes – were largely nonexistent. It was a bit like being in a Vegas casino with no clocks. Time just gushes away.

VIDEO: Jamie Benn’s shot the only goal

In any case, the U.S. never came especially close to tying the game, and Canada came very close to extending the lead and it was clear, on this day anyway, that there’s still a gap between Canadian and American hockey. Maybe this is as it should be considering how intently Canadian life revolves around the sport (some 80 percent of Canada watched at least part of the 2010 gold medal game).

But it is a blow for a United States still trying to move past the Miracle on Ice. Bylsma made the point after the game that U.S. hockey is at a place now where it hardly needs a miracle to win a gold medal. He’s right, of course. All the U.S. really needs is a couple more goals against Canada. Thing is, that’s the proving to be about as elusive as miracles.

Mike Green may miss start of Red Wings season with scary ailment

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Early word of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Green dealing with fatigue issues in the preseason seemed unusual, but it turns out there’s a rather frightening reason why he might be dealing with energy issues.

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill announced that Green is sidelined indefinitely, as he saw an infectious disease specialist regarding  “a virus that attacked his liver,” according to Dana Wakiji of the Red Wings website.

“(Green’s) not available right now,” Blashill said, via Wakiji. “He’s got a virus that attacked his liver, so he’s seen an infectious disease person today and we should know more here in the next little bit. I don’t know how long he’s going to be out. I don’t know the totality of it.”

Scary stuff. (You can read more about viruses that affect the liver here.)

Green is no stranger to injury issues, including ailments that plagued him during his offensively dominant days with the Washington Capitals. Not long ago, Green spoke in positive terms about how he was feeling coming off of neck surgery.

This is unsettling news for a defenseman who’s already dealt with tough injury luck during his career. Here’s hoping that Green and the Red Wings take every precaution before he returns to the ice.

One silver lining is that, with Green sidelined, the Red Wings can open the door for some defensive prospects to get a longer look than they might have received under different circumstances. In particular, Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek stand out as blueliners who could really benefit from some additional opportunities, while Libor Sulak and Joe Hicketts should also be in the mix.

GM Ken Holland acknowledged as much while discussing Green’s health challenges, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free-Press.

“Now we have five D, and we are probably going to start with seven,” Holland said. “Now, how long is Mike Green out? Certainly it appears he is going to be out for a little period of time. So probably we are going to start with two of these defense prospects – either Sulak or Hicketts or Cholowski or Hronek.”

One might argue that the Red Wings should already be taking measures to skew in a younger direction on defense, anyway. Getting more intel on Sulak, Hicketts, Cholowski, and Hronek would give them a better idea regarding how soon they might be able to contribute, or if they even figure into future plans.

Consider the ages of the Red Wings more settled defensemen. Green is 32, Jonathan Ericsson is pretty broken down at 34, Trevor Daley is 34, and Niklas Kronwall‘s nearing the end of his career at 37. It’s plausible that Nick Jensen and Danny DeKeyser (both 28) will be in a decline and/or out of the picture by the time the Red Wings wade out of the darkness, too.

The Red Wings have made some significant progress toward a rebuild – the Tomas Tatar trade was wonderful, and they followed it up with shrewd picks at the 2018 NHL Draft – yet there still seem to be moments where they’re too stubborn to fully embrace the growing pains. Bringing Green back felt a little bit like that, as there’s a strong chance that a healthy Green would provide better immediate returns than a Cholowski or Hronek. But, realistically speaking, would the upside be that strong?

Either way, here’s hoping there will be happier news for Green soon.

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.

Ekblad on Domi sucker punch: ‘Scores will get settled’

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The first game out of the December holiday break for the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens won’t be your typical midseason meeting. After the Max Domi / Aaron Ekblad incident from Wednesday night, there will be some bad blood on display that Friday night at BB&T Center.

Domi spoke to the media on Friday for the first time since his five-game suspension was handed down for sucker-punching Ekblad, breaking the Panthers’ defenseman’s nose in the process. He apologized for his actions and respected the NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision to give him the rest of the preseason off.

“It’s a real tough situation, obviously, for everyone involved,” said Domi, who was given a match penalty and a a minor for roughing. “I feel bad about it. It’s not the way I wanted to handle that. It’s an emotional game. Obviously, I’m an emotional player. I’ve known Aaron for a long time, grew up playing against each other. Always played hard, always battled, whether it was minor hockey, junior, national level, and now the NHL, too.

“By no means did I want to hurt him, I feel bad about it. I hope he’s OK. But, you know what? I’ve got to suffer the consequences of it and it’s unfortunate. But it is what it is and I respect the league’s decision.”

[NHL not tough enough with preseason suspensions]

The suspension is obviously a joke. Five preseason games is almost a gift for any NHL player who has a job already sewn up. Plus, add in the fact that Domi won’t have to forfeit any salary and it’s a nice little vacation.

The Panthers had some choice words following the game, with goaltender Roberto Luongo saying they won’t forget what happened and calling what Domi did “a gutless play.” Ekblad, who was also sporting a pair of black eyes, said on Friday that it was a “dumb” decision by the Canadiens forward and hinted at some retribution coming when they meet on Dec. 28.

“I think he’s stupid for doing it. In the end, it’s hockey,” Ekblad said via the Panthers. “That’s the way it goes. Scores will get settled at a later date.”

That’s going to earn a phone call from the league to try and calm things down.

“It looked like Max was frustrated,” added Ekblad. “He obviously wasn’t doing much in the game and thought it was the right way to take care of something. I’m not sure what there was to take care of, considering I didn’t do much on the ice. I was just floating around trying to find my legs and play hockey. That’s what you do in the preseason.”

When told of Ekblad’s comments, Domi responded, “It’s part of the game. It is what it is. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. That’s hockey. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

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While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

***

As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last season.

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.

Reinhart eagerly rejoins Sabres with new contract signed

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — If Sam Reinhart‘s objective was to carry over his point-a-game pace from the second half of last season, the Buffalo Sabres forward understood that it wasn’t doing him much good sitting at home waiting for contract talks to be resolved.

”I don’t know if worried’s the right word,” he said after practicing for the first time Thursday, a day after flying in from Vancouver, British Columbia, and signing a two-year, $7.3 million contract. ”I think the best thing for the team and myself was to be here as soon as possible.”

Reinhart missed five days of training camp and two preseason games.

With two weeks to catch up before the Sabres open the regular season by hosting Boston, the No. 2 player selected in the 2014 draft is focused on proving he can consistently produce over the course of an entire season.

That was the knock on Reinhart last year, when he had just seven goals and 13 points in his first 44 games. He then went on a tear, scoring 18 goals and 37 points his final 38 games, and finished with a career-best 25 goals and 50 points.

The down-then-up season was one of the reasons the Sabres balked at offering the restricted free agent a longer-term deal.

”Whether it was a one-year or an eight-year, it’s not changing my mentality,” Reinhart said. ”I know the player I can be.”

General manager Jason Botterill said the key to Reinhart’s turnaround was how he established himself as a player unafraid of playing in front of an opposing net. He said it’s on both Reinhart and his coaching staff to continue his development.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Botterill was impressed with Reinhart’s approach during contract talks. He kept in touch with the team over the summer and traveled to Buffalo to take part in informal workouts with his teammates before camp opened, then returned to Vancouver last week.

”I think it’s just not words, it was his actions,” Botterill said. ”It’s been evident that Sam wants to be part of our solution here in Buffalo.”

The two-time 20-goal scorer has 65 goals and 140 points in 249 career games.

Reinhart rejoins a roster that was overhauled this summer after the Sabres finished last in the standings for a third time in five years. Despite the additions of forwards Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner, Reinhart is being counted upon to reclaim his role on one of the top two lines.

Coach Phil Housley said there’s a chance Reinhart could make his preseason debut as early as Saturday, when Buffalo hosts Toronto.

NOTES: Botterill expects Sheary to be ready for the start of the season despite the forward suffering an upper body injury on Sept. 14. … The Sabres are buying out the final year of Vaclav Karabacek’s contract after the forward cleared waivers. Karabacek was Buffalo’s second-round pick in the 2014 draft and had eight goals and 16 assists in 51 games split between the Sabres’ two minor-league affiliates over the past two years.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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