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

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

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

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panarin changes everything for Rangers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The last time a New York Rangers player cracked the 80-point mark in the NHL was a decade ago.

Then, Marian Gaborik was a much younger version of his self and putting up impressive seasons as a marquee player.

Since then, the Rangers haven’t really had that sort of offensive pizazz. That hasn’t always stopped them from having success, of course. But adding a guy who has the potential to hit the 100-point plateau at just 27 years of age could figure in moving that success to the next level.

Being the team playing in an attractive destination and with mountains of cash on July 1 presents a wealth of opportunities in the free-agent market and for the Rangers, it was their lucky year.

Signing Artemi Panarin long-term as he just enters the prime of his career, is the single biggest get of the summer. For any team.

Panarin brings elite scoring to a club that needs it amidst their (now accelerated) rebuild. But Panarin is so much more than just premium point producer.

His possession numbers are off-the-charts good. He’s a responsible player at both ends of the ice, creates more goals than allowed when he’s on in five-on-five situations and creates more high-danger chances than are seen against him. Furthermore, in terms of goals above replacement, Panarin was 10th in NHL this past season.

And this season, Panarin doesn’t bring a bad full of distraction with him.

Last year, questions swirled all year about his future. There will be none of those this time around.

Instead, he’s likely to be paired with Mika Zibanejad and perhaps even Kaapo Kakko in what could be something of a mega line in terms of scoring and shutting down the opposition.

Panarin is that x-factor. He brings so much to a team and he’s now in a position to lead a much younger Rangers team into what appears to be a bright future.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s New York Rangers Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

2018-19
32-36-8, 78 points (7th in the Metropolitan Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Artemi Panarin
Jacob Trouba
Kaapo Kakko
Adam Fox
Greg McKegg

OUT: 
Neal Pionk
Kevin Hayes
Mats Zuccarello
Jimmy Vesey
Kevin Shattenkirk
Ryan Spooner
Fredrik Claesson
Connor Brickley

RE-SIGNED:
Pavel Buchnevich

2018-19 Summary

It was understood going into this past season in the Big Apple that by the end of it, the New York Rangers would be on the outside looking in.

A sell-off during the end of the 2017-18 season pointed to a re-build that would likely take a couple of seasons to fully mature.

And thus, the on-ice product for the Rangers was much less about winning games as it was about putting some of their young guns in positions to grow.

Alexandar Georgiev, for instance, was given 30 starts between the pipes as the Rangers let Henrik Lundqvist‘s heir-apparent get well-acquainted with the No. 1 spot he will one day own.

He showed well on a poor team, with the 23-year-old posting a respectable .914 save percentage.

Others, too, were given a chance to develop. The likes of Pavel Buchnevich, 24, Tony DeAngelo, 23, Filip Chytil, 19, and Lias Andersson, 20, saw significant action.

Everything was following the simple stream that is a slow rebuilding process. Well, at least until June.

In June, the Rangers found out they’d be picking second overall in the 2019 NHL Draft after moving up four spots from the six-best odds at the draft lottery. Welcome, Kaapo Kakko.

They’d acquire the rights to Jacob Trouba (and eventually sign the blue line stalwart to a seven-year deal.)

And then July 1 came and Artemi Panarin was handed $81 million over the next seven years.

The rebuild that was rolling along at a typical methodical pace suddenly slammed into sixth gear. The Rangers now added a bona fide superstar forward, a potential superstar forward and a top-pairing defenseman to the mix.

General manager Jeff Gorton wasn’t messing around, announcing his intentions to the rest of the league with his wallet open wide.

So now, the Rangers have smashed the fast-forward button. There’s no talk anymore about another growing season. Instead, the narrative has shifted to a team that could compete for a playoff spot at minimum, especially if Lundqvist can bounce back and retain his crown as ‘King’ in one final hurrah in his storied career.

The Rangers have kept pace with the New Jersey Devils and their own aggressive summer. The Metro is quite the division — perhaps the best in hockey — and the Rangers should be right back in the mix in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck