Underdog U.S. players ‘trying to prove some doubters wrong’

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The ”Miracle On Ice” was a Minnesota production.

If the U.S. pulls off another Olympic miracle, it would be a nationwide effort.

When the 1980 U.S. hockey team made up of college kids shocked the favored Soviet Union on the way to winning the gold medal, 13 players came from Minnesota, four from Massachusetts, two from Michigan and one from Wisconsin. The 2018 team couldn’t be constructed more differently with players from 12 different states and leagues all over the world, though it has the same underdog approach from careers of being discounted and passed over.

”We’re trying to prove some doubters wrong,” goaltender Ryan Zapolski said. ”We’ve all had pretty successful pro careers, I think, but we still have doubters, for sure. And I think that’s a motivation for us. We’ve been overlooked pretty much our whole careers, much of us, so just in the back of our minds we still think of those times where people didn’t give us the right chances and have this opportunity now to kind of take advantage of that.”

Again, a team of Russians is the favorite even if it’s under a neutral flag and again the U.S. is trying to end a lengthy gold-medal drought, which dates back to 1980. The Americans will try to do it with players from Massachusetts, New York, Michigan and Minnesota and some less-common hockey hotbeds: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, California, Connecticut, Virginia, Florida and Arizona.

Three players come from Philadelphia suburbs alone.

”To have three kids from Philadelphia, you would never have seen on that 1980 team,” said Brian O’Neill, a native of Yardley, Pennsylvania. ”I think it just shows you how far hockey has come in the U.S. where you have a California representative, you have a Pennsylvania representative, Florida – you name it. I think that’s just a testament to how good hockey’s gotten in the U.S.”

The NHL’s expansion into the Sun Belt led forward Broc Little to start playing in Arizona, goalie Brandon Maxwell in Florida and defenseman Jonathon Blum in Southern California. As players seek to build chemistry quickly for a short tournament, they think the varying backgrounds can only help.

”There’s different culture, there’s different mindsets,” Blum said. ”(Players from) different states bring different things. Californians like to stay laid back and more easygoing, so I try to bring that to the room.”

In the room, only captain Brian Gionta, at 39, is old enough to have been alive for the 1980 Olympics and is proud of the diversity on the 25-man roster. Winning gold in Lake Placid certainly had an effect on spreading hockey. Tony Granato, now coach, had teammates from Texas and Oklahoma at the 1988 Olympics, and the progression has continued.

”The ’80 team was basically Massachusetts and Minnesota,” Granato said. ”It says that our game isn’t as regional as it used to be, so I think that’s a positive thing: players coming from all over the place.”

Many of these players started from the bottom, now they’re here. Zapolski, fellow goalie David Leggio and defensemen Matt Gilroy and Ryan Gunderson were all college walk-ons and now get to reprise that role by being thrust into the Olympic spotlight as NHL continues its season.

”All of these guys have had great paths to get to where they’re at,” Granato said. ”It’s different paths than Patrick Kane and those guys had from the last few Olympics, but they’re all great hockey players.”

Gunderson, one of the three Philadelphia-area products, said people back home often forget that no team in the tournament has an NHL player. But the Russians have stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, while the U.S. has 10 players – including all three goalies – who haven’t played in the NHL.

On paper, the U.S. doesn’t stack up well against Russia, which draws players from just three Kontinental Hockey League clubs. Zapolski said he and his teammates are well-aware of the predictions that don’t give them much of a chance.

”We’re as good as anybody, but we know we’re not a favorite out here so I think it’s a little extra chip on our shoulder, too, going into every game, especially against a team like Russia,” the Erie, Pennsylvania native said. ”We know we’re going to be big underdogs against them. I’m sure it’s extra motivation.”

The Americans are motivated by slights, but there’s a reason they won’t be putting on ”Underdog” masks like the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles: They think they can do some damage.

”You look at the rosters of some of the teams, obviously they’ve got some great players,” Gionta said. ”But where this team is at and the hunger that this team shows, anything’s possible.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.