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U.S.-Canada women’s hockey classic makes us forget NHL

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Who needs the NHL?

We’re good with Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson pulling off the sickest of moves – her shoulders dipping to and fro, her blades cutting this way and that, her magic wand of a stick guiding the puck past a helpless Canadian goalie who had been reduced to a pretzel.

We’re good with Maddie Rooney making one last stop – squeezing shut the tantalizing gap in her pads as the shooter swerved in front of the net, swatting away a puck that lingered perilously in the crease, throwing up her arms and disappearing into a dog pile of blue-clad teammates near the blue line.

Certainly, this was the only gold medal hockey game that matters at these Winter Olympics.

When it was done – three thrilling periods of regulation, another free-wheeling 20 minutes of overtime, a shootout that went six tension-filled rounds – the Americans littered the ice the sticks, gloves and helmets, whooping it up in a raucous, fitting celebration of their 3-2 triumph over the heartbroken Canadians .

Some will surely say this was a victory for women’s hockey.

That would be selling it short.

This was a victory for all of hockey.

”They played great. We played great,” Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin said, her voice barely above a whisper. ”It just shows how much women’s hockey is growing. We want to keep going, keep getting better.”

When the NHL decided to sit out the Pyeongchang Games, its stars were replaced in the men’s bracket by minor-leaguers, European professionals and only a smattering of recognizable names.

But the Olympics got the undisputed best of the women’s game, monopolized by two North American powerhouses that are the bitterest of rivals and the only real challenge to each other.

The U.S. claimed the first Olympic title, before Canada ripped off four in succession. The two countries have divvied up every women’s world championship since that tournament began in 1990, leaving the rest of the world to scramble for the crumbs. The asymmetrical balance of power must change if the sport is to really grow, but there was no question about the quality of play on Thursday.

Dazzling.

The Americans jumped ahead in the first period. The Canadians claimed the lead with two goals in the second. That set up a crucial sequence with just under 7 minutes left in the third.

Canada’s Laura Stacy swooped in all alone on Rooney, looking to put a capper on another gold medal with a shot into the top left corner. But the 20-year-old goaltender nicked the puck with her blocker, just enough to send it wide of the bar and careening around the boards. Kelly Pannek picked it off in front of the American bench and spotted teammate Monique Lamoureux-Morando – Jocelyn’s twin – breaking free behind the Canadian defense.

The pass was right on the mark. Lamoureux-Morando glided in on the breakaway, holding the puck as long as she could before lifting a shot over the glove of Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados.

It stayed 2-2 through the rest of regulation, setting up a 4-on-4 overtime period. Even with one less skater per side and all that open ice, neither team was able to break through with the winning goal. The gold medal would be decided with a shootout, which is generally a less-than-satisfying way of settling such an important matter .

This was the exception.

First, Gigi Marvin pulled off a brilliant recovery to put the Americans ahead. Beginning to fall and the puck slipping away, she somehow managed to flick it past Szabados before crashing into the side of the net.

Then it was Melodie Daoust giving Canada the upper hand with a stunner of a move. She looped through the right faceoff circle, darted down in front of Rooney to drag her across the crease, before reaching back to bury a one-handed swing of a shot.

Rooney and Szabados had their moments, too, making three saves apiece to send the shootout to sudden death.

Lamoureux-Davidson went for the Americans. As she bore down on Szabados, the toying began.

A fake to the right. A deke to the left. Finally, back to the right again – the sort of ankle-breaking tactic one might expect from Steph Curry. Szabados desperately flailed her body in front of the net, even losing hold of her stick, but she didn’t have a chance.

Canada sent out Meghan Agosta, who had beaten Rooney earlier in the shootout with a shot to an upper corner – top shelf, they call it – but the young American foiled a repeat by venturing far out of the crease. Agosta sliced to her left and thought she spotted enough of an opening in the pads to slip one through the five-hole. Rooney knew what was coming, sealing off the gap with both her stick and pads.

She didn’t totally stop the puck, but got enough of it to leave it about a foot short of the goal line. Rooney knocked it away just in case. The celebration was on.

”It shows how tight our teams are,” U.S. forward Hannah Brandt said. ”Obviously, it’s tough for it to come down to a shootout like that. But just a great game. I hope everyone had a good time watching it.”

The NHL?

Not needed here.

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

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Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

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.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
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Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful 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.