U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski ready for ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ Olympic opportunity

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Ryan Zapolski’s second year in the ECHL gave him a taste of what life is like for a goaltender plying his trade at that level of professional hockey.

Playing for four teams in one season, Zapolski got used to hearing the phrase “It’s a numbers thing” from coaches telling him why he was being released. He went from Stockton to Kalamazoo to Toledo to Gwinnett (to the tune of the Carmen Sandiego TV theme song) and found himself frustrated — the lack of opportunities left him wondering if he should walk away from the game.

“I had been home for two weeks in-between games and didn’t really know where I was going with hockey,” Zapolski told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday. “I wasn’t applying for jobs or anything like that, so it wasn’t that real for me.”

He felt his game was fine, but that phrase kept being uttered by coaches at each stop. The retirement option, however, was just a passing thought and he knew he just had to be a little more patient. “I was still young enough and it was only my second year, so I was still happy to wait and look for that chance,” he said.

A life of going to the rink every day to play hockey beat working a regular job, so Zapolski stuck with it and heeded the advice of players who quit too early by having the mindset of trying to play as long as he could.

“I’m happy I stuck with it,” he said.

Fast forward six years and hundreds of long bus rides later and Zapolski, who is in his second year with Jokerit of the KHL, is one three goaltenders on the U.S. men’s team.

When the NHL announced they wouldn’t be sending players to the 2018 Olympics, Jim Johansson, the late general manager of the men’s team, reached out to the 31-year-old Zapolski in May letting him know that he was on their radar. With three roster spots open for goaltenders, there was plenty of motivation heading into this season.

“You just get really excited right away,” Zapolski said, “just want to get the season going. I think maybe a little extra time in the gym, too. But obviously, you get that type of news and you know what kind of chance it could be and you want to have a good start to the season.”

[USA Hockey announces 2018 Olympic men’s roster]

It’s been a great year for Zapolski as he’s posted a 23-10-4 record and a .933 save percentage with Jokerit. He was named to the KHL All-Star Game earlier this month and also signed a two-year extension, which would give him seven years in Finland when it expires.

“I think a lot of people back home don’t know who he is and don’t realize how good the hockey is over here,” said Zapolski’s Jokerit teammate Matt Gilroy. “He’s been really good for a long time over here, especially this year. We’re one of the better teams in the league and he has a big thing to do with that. He’s just a gamer and the Olympics is a special tournament that I think he can do well at.”

Zapolski’s final season in the ECHL was 2012-13 and it was the best of his career. In 38 games, he was 25-11-2 with a .944 save percentage. That success led him to being named the league’s rookie of the year, goaltender of the year and most valuable player. He parlayed that into a contract with Lukko of Finland’s SM-liiga, where he would spend the next three seasons.

The plan was to play a few years there and then come back to North America, but nothing concrete materialized contract-wise over here. Zapolski didn’t worry about returning home to play mainly because he would sign extensions to stay at the beginning of the season.


Zapolski was the only goaltender listed on the men’s roster when the team was announced Jan. 1. Brandon Maxwell and David Leggio were added two weeks later, but it’s a safe bet the Erie, Pa. native will be the starter when the U.S. plays its first game of the tournament Feb. 14 versus Slovenia.

Like Gilroy said, Zapolski isn’t a household name in the U.S., but a strong Olympics in front of a large television audience could open some eyes to future opportunities. Has he thought about attempting to come back and play in North America in the future?

“It’s definitely something that’s a possibility,” he said. “I’m happy here, so I’m not really going to rush anything or push anything to get back to North America. Of course, I know [the Olympics are] the biggest stage, everybody’s going to be watching [like] NHL GMs.”

Zapolski mentioned Tim Thomas as an example of a goaltender who got an NHL chance at a later age (28) after years of playing in the minors and Europe. But for the moment he’s not thinking that far down the line.

“I’ve been overlooked in the past, my whole career, really,” he said. “Like I said, I’m happy here and if it happens, it happens. I really have no regrets coming over.”

Zapolski has played in three Deutschland Cups for the U.S., but representing his country at the Olympics is an opportunity on another level.

“Going to Deutschland Cup in the past was such an honor. The first one I kind of thought that was my Olympics and didn’t think I’d get a chance to be in the actual Olympics,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest honor in sports for any athlete is to represent your country in the Olympics.

“It’s going to be special, pretty emotional for most of us to be there. Just looking forward to everything. The whole experience is going to be once-in-a-lifetime.”

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule


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.

Barkov sets Panthers’ points mark in 5-2 win over Red Wings

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DETROIT – Aleksander Barkov set the Florida franchise record for most career points, Carter Verhaeghe scored two goals, and the streaking Panthers beat the Detroit Red Wings for the ninth consecutive time, 5-2.

Barkov recorded a second-period assist, giving him 614 points, breaking a tie with Jonathan Huberdeau for the team record.

Matthew Tkachuk had a goal and two assists, giving him 14 points over the last five games. Eric Staal and Gustav Forsling also scored for the Panthers, who are 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 20 shots.

Pius Suter and Dylan Larkin scored for the Red Wings, who have lost 10 of their last 12 games. Ville Husso had 20 saves.

The Panthers led 2-1 after the first period.

The first Florida goal came after Lucas Raymond‘s turnover in his own zone. Sam Bennett made the steal and passed it to Tkachuk for his 33rd goal.

Verhaeghe made it 2-0 with a slap shot that got past a screened Husso. The Red Wings challenged for goalie interference, but the goal was upheld after a video review.

Just after killing off the subsequent penalty, Detroit got on the board when Suter jammed in a rebound of David Perron‘s shot.

Forsling scored on shot from the point midway through the second period to restore Florida’s two-goal advantage. Barkov had the second assist, allowing him to break the franchise points record.

Larkin scored on a delayed penalty off a pass from Raymond at 7:53 of the third to cut the Panthers’ lead to 3-2.

Staal scored on a breakaway off a pass from Anthony Duclair with under four minutes left, and Verhaeghe added a power-play goal.


Panthers F Eetu Luostarinen had an assist in the 200th game of his career. … Florida is 29-2-3 when leading after two periods. … The last time the Red Wings beat the Panthers was Feb. 20, 2021. … Barkov has 42 points in 38 career games against Detroit. … Andrew Copp notched his 150th career assist on Larkin’s goal.


Panthers: At Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

Red Wings: At St. Louis on Tuesday night to open a home-and-home set.

Ferguson stops 47 shots, Senators top reeling Penguins 2-1

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PITTSBURGH – Drake Batherson‘s power-play goal from in front with 2:09 left in regulation lifted the Ottawa Senators to a 2-1 win over the reeling Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins finally beat Ottawa goaltender Dylan Ferguson on a Rickard Rakell goal with 5:21 to play, but a hooking penalty by Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel gave the Senators the man advantage and Batherson responded with his 21st goal of the season.

Ferguson, making his first NHL start and first appearance in the league in more than five years, made 47 saves to send Pittsburgh to its fourth straight loss. Thomas Chabot scored his 10th goal of the season for Ottawa as the Senators snapped a five-game slide.

The Penguins fell behind Florida in the race for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. Tristan Jarry played well but couldn’t get in the way of Batherson’s jam shot from just outside the crease.

Ferguson began the night having played nine minutes at the NHL level as a teenager for Vegas early in the Golden Knights’ debut season in 2017-18. He has bounced around various levels of the minors ever since and was in the process of being sent down to the ECHL by the AHL’s Toronto Marlies earlier this month when the Senators signed him to a two-way deal.

Something clicked. He played well enough in six games for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in Belleville to receive a call-up on Sunday. Just over 24 hours later, the Senators made the now 24-year-old Ferguson the sixth goaltender they’ve used this season when they gave him the nod against the struggling Penguins.

Ferguson looked like he belonged from the opening faceoff. He made a series of sharp saves early, including a couple of stops from in close against Jake Guentzel and a flashy glove save on a slap shot by Malkin.

Jarry, a two-time All-Star who has struggled to find any sort of consistency since returning from an extended stay on the injured list, took a step forward, turning aside multiple odd-man rushes and a breakaway by Brady Tkachuk in the second period.

The lone goal Jarry allowed came 16:46 into the first when Chabot took a feed from Claude Giroux and rather than fire a shot from high in the slot skated down to the right circle and beat Jarry to the far post.

Jarry was solid the rest of the way, though he spent most of the game watching Ferguson dazzle at the other end before Rakell broke through with just over 5 minutes to go.


Senators: Travel to Boston on Tuesday to face the NHL-leading Bruins.

Penguins: Start a difficult back-to-back on the road on Wednesday when they visit the Avalanche in Denver.

Sharks goalie James Reimer declines to wear Pride jersey

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San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer didn’t take part in pregame warmups, saying the team’s decision to wear Pride-themed jerseys in support of the LGBTQ community runs counter to his religious beliefs.

Reimer said in a statement Saturday that he made the decision based on his Christian beliefs, adding that he “always strived to treat everyone with respect” and that members of the LGBTQ community should be welcome in hockey.

“In this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions, which are based on the Bible, the highest authority in life,” Reimer said.

Reimer is the second NHL player this season to refuse to take part in warmups with Pride-themed jerseys, with Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov declining to in January. Reimer was not slated to start in Saturday night’s home game against the New York Islanders, which is Pride night.

Additionally, the New York Rangers opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their night in January despite previously advertising that plan.

The Sharks said in a statement that they are proud to host Pride Night, saying the event reinforces the team’s commitment to inclusiveness.

“As we promote these standards, we also acknowledge and accept the rights of individuals to express themselves, including how or whether they choose to express their beliefs, regardless of the cause or topic,” the team said in a statement. “As an organization, we will not waver in our support of the LGBTQIA+ community and continue to encourage others to engage in active allyship.”

The You Can Play Project, which works to promote inclusiveness in sports, said the organization was disappointed in Reimer’s actions.

“Religion and respect are not in conflict with each other, and we are certainly disappointed when religion is used as a reason to not support our community,” the organization said. “Wearing pride jerseys, like any celebration jersey worn, is not about the personal feelings of an athlete; rather the communication from the team that a community is welcome in the arena and the sport.”

Panarin, Shesterkin lead Rangers to 6-0 rout of Penguins

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NEW YORK — Mika Zibanejad had a goal and two assists, Artemi Panarin scored twice and Igor Shesterkin made 33 saves as the New York Rangers routed Pittsburgh 6-0 on Saturday night for their second win over the Penguins in three days.

Vladimir Tarasenko, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba also scored for the surging Rangers, who have won nine of their last 11 home games and are 12-4-0 in their past 16 at Madison Square Garden.

Shesterkin won his fifth straight and posted his second shutout this season. He nimbly denied Pittsburgh forward Mikael Granland with a sprawling save five minutes into the third period to preserve the shutout, the 10th of his career. His other one this season was a 1-0 home win over Philadelphia on Nov. 1.

“When you put in hard and honest work, miracles happen,” Shesterkin said through a translator. ”We played wonderfully today – scored many, many goals. Honestly, I hope the fans loved it. We’re playing for them.”

The Penguins lost their third straight and trail the Rangers by 12 points for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh, still in wild-card position, is trying to reach the playoffs for the 17th straight time.

“Tonight was a humbling experience for all of us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. ”At this time of year, you have to have a short memory. We still have control of our destiny.”

Patrick Kane and defenseman K’Andre Miller also had two assists apiece as New York improved to 7-1-1 in its last nine home games against Pittsburgh. The Rangers are five points behind the second-place New Jersey Devils, who lost at Florida on Saturday.

“This was a big game for our goalie and our team,” Panarin said. “If you work at playing the right way, you have opportunities for goals.”

Since Dec. 5, when they turned around their season with a 6-4 comeback win at home over St. Louis, the Rangers are 29-9-5.

As he did on Thursday when the Rangers beat the Penguins 4-2, Zibanejad opened the scoring. He got his team-leading 36th goal at 5:10 of the first, beating Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry. Trouba and Miller assisted.

Panarin made it 2-0 at 19:49 on the power play, whipping the puck past Jarry from the left circle off a pass from Adam Fox.

Tarasenko increased the lead at 3:54 of the second with his fifth goal since joining the Rangers in a trade with St. Louis on Feb. 9. Tarasenko has points in 10 of his first 18 games with the Rangers.

Kreider made it 4-0 at 6:43 with his 31st goal and third in two games against the Penguins. Kane and Vincent Trocheck assisted on Kreider’s 260th career goal, which moved the Rangers forward within two of Vic Hadfield for fifth place on the franchise list.

New York won Thursday when Kreider scored the go-ahead goal in the third and added an empty-netter.

After Casey DeSmith replaced Jarry in net following Kreider’s goal, Trouba beat the replacement with a sharp-angle shot at 8:39 for his eighth to increase the margin to 5-0. Trouba has points in six of his last eight games.

Panarin scored again at 16:38 of the second – his 22nd goal of the season – to make it 6-0, with assists to Kane and Filip Chytil.

“We’re building chemistry, building every day and every game,” Kane said.

Panarin has points in eight of his last 10 games and leads the Rangers with 77 points overall, while Kane has seven points in his last six games.

“It’s nice to see that many great players on your team,” added Panarin, whose first two NHL seasons were played alongside Kane with the Chicago Blackhawks. “We’re happy tonight.”

Zibanejad assisted on goals by Tarasenko and Trouba and has 25 points – including 14 goals – over his last 20 games.

“It was just one of those nights when the puck goes in for us,” Zibanejad said. “And obviously Igor gives us a boost making all those saves.”

NOTES: The Penguins were missing defenseman Jeff Petry after he was hit with an unpenalized elbow from Rangers forward Tyler Motte on Thursday. … Pittsburgh also scratched defenseman Jan Rutta and forward Dalton Heinen and played defenseman Mark Friedman for the first time since Feb. 11. … The Rangers were without injured defenseman Ryan Lindgren for the 10th straight game.


Penguins: Host the Ottawa Senators on Monday.

Rangers: Host the Nashville Predators on Sunday night.