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Russians to face surprising Germany in Olympic hockey final

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Russians expected to play for the Olympic men’s hockey gold medal for the first time in 20 years.

Their opponent is quite the surprise: Germany will play in its first Olympic hockey final on Sunday hours before the games conclude.

Patrick Hager’s power-play goal at 12:31 of the second period wound up the game-winner as Germany stunned two-time defending gold medalist Canada 4-3 Friday night to set up a very unexpected gold medal game. Germany has only two bronze medals in hockey in its history – the last in 1976.

After upsetting top-seeded Sweden and pulling off their latest amazing win, an elusive gold medal suddenly isn’t so far-fetched.

”Who knows? Who knows?” German goalie Danny Aus Den Birken said with a big smile. ”If we keep fighting like this, we have nothing to lose.”

The Germans may believe in each other, but this is a country that didn’t even qualify for the Olympic men’s tournament four years ago at Sochi. They finished 11th in Vancouver, and they had to qualify for this tournament.

Coached by former NHL player Marco Sturm, the Germans scored two power-play goals against backup Canadian goalie Kevin Poulin with Ben Scrivens out injured. This wasn’t the Canada team that won gold in 2014 in Sochi or 2010 in Vancouver with a roster stocked with NHL stars.

”We didn’t know what to expect,” Sturm said. ”Everyone, the best players should be in Olympics. All the NHL guys should be in the Olympics. That’s just what the event is for and hopefully in the future they will be back on Olympic ice.”

For now, the Germans have capitalized in their biggest win yet. They had a bunch of German athletes in the Gangneung Hockey Center cheering them on.

After Canada’s last flurry was ended with the puck sent out of the offensive zone, the Germans hugged and huddled in celebration with the Canadians simply standing around in disbelief. Even the Germans on the ice may need a few hours to realize exactly what they’ve done, and Winnipeg native Brooks Macek said this win is huge.

”Everybody talks about 1976 and winning bronze medal, and now for the next 50 years they’re going to talk about us,” German defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said. ”That’s why it’s the greatest day in German hockey.”

Matthias Plachta had a goal and an assist, Frank Mauer and Macek each had a goal for Germany. Gilbert Brule had a power-play goal for Canada before being ejected for a high hit on David Wolf. Mat Robinson and Derek Roy also scored for Canada.

Next up for Germany is a powerhouse Russian team that has looked every bit the favorite. Veteran goaltender Vasily Koshechkin stopped all 31 shots he faced to put the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” into the final with a 3-0 victory over the Czech Republic earlier Friday.

Russia last reached the Olympic final in 1998 when it lost to the Czech Republic and hasn’t won gold since 1992 when it played as the unified Community of Independent States team.

”It would just mean everything to us,” forward Mikhail Grigorenko said of trying to end the 26-year drought. ”It’s huge for us, for the players, for Russian hockey and the whole country.”

Playing in front of raucous, flag-waving fans as they have all tournament, the Russians were not overly powerful but certainly as opportunistic as they were in a 4-0 victory over the United States in group play. They scored only twice on 19 shots against Czech goalie Pavel Francouz and Koshechkin did the rest.

Koshechkin improved to 3-1-0 with a 1.08 goals-against average and .951 save percentage after getting the nod as the No. 1 goalie over NHL prospects Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shestyorkin. He’ll almost certainly start the final Sunday.

”He’s been our best player this tournament,” Grigorenko said. ”He’s been playing (almost) every game and he’s just making a lot of saves. He made some huge saves tonight, and he was good.”

Kontinental Hockey League star Nikita Gusev and Vladislav Gavrikov scored goals 27 seconds apart in the second period on plays Francouz had little chance of stopping. Kirill Kaprizov jumped in to screen Francouz on Gusev’s goal that was upheld after a goaltender interference challenge. Gavrikov put the puck into an empty net on a 2-on-1 rush with Ivan Telegin.

Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk added an empty-netter with 20.9 seconds left.

”We are here for one reason,” Kovalchuk said. ”And I think we deserve to be in the final.”

In a tournament without NHL players, the Russians brought a roster almost entirely made up of players from SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, the top two teams in the KHL. That includes Kaprizov, a Minnesota Wild prospect who has been one of the best players in the tournament and could be in the NHL as soon as next season.

The Czech Republic has a chance for its first bronze medal since 2006, when it beat Russia in Turin. Bronze will be important, but the Czechs outshot the Russians 31-19 and went 0 for 4 on the power play.

”It’s very tough when you don’t score any goals,” assistant coach Jaroslav Spacek said. ”It’s tough to win.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.

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

Domi’s passing skills impress Habs’ Gallagher

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If you want to paint the grimmest picture for the Montreal Canadiens’ side of Friday’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes, consider goal stats for Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk.

It’s been noted that Galchenyuk scored almost as many goals in one season (30 in 82 games during the 2015-16 campaign) as Max Domi has during his entire NHL career (36 in 222 games). Brutal, right?

Yes, but it probably oversells the gap between the two as overall players, even if Galchenyuk has undoubtedly enjoyed the superior career.

For one thing, Domi’s enjoyed his moments. He scored 18 goals during his impressive rookie season, the only year he’s enjoyed a respectable shooting percentage (11.5 percent).

As you zoom out, the comparison gets less lopsided. Glance at overall points and things get closer. Domi’s generated 135 points over his 222-game career, good for an average of .60 points per contest. Galchenyuk, meanwhile, comes in at .61 (255 points in 418 games). So, if those averages stood during an 82-game season, Galchenyuk would score 50 points while Domi would generate … a fraction less than 50 points.

Now, you can counter those observations by fairly noting that goals come at higher premium than assists. Again, it’s clear that so far, Galchenyuk’s been more dynamic.

But that’s not the point. Instead, one should realize that Domi is a superior threat as a passer, not a shooter. (Galchenyuk, meanwhile, can be a deadly sniper.)

Domi’s teammates seem to notice that distinction, especially Brendan Gallagher, who won gold with him at the 2016 World Championship.

“He plays extremely hard, he competes hard, but he’s a pass-first kind of guy. It was shocking at times, the way he sees the game,” Gallagher said to Dan Braverman of the Canadiens website. “If you’re out on the ice with him, you have to be ready to shoot the puck, because he’s looking to feed his linemates, which is always nice to play with.”

In a fascinating breakdown for Sportsnet, Andrew Berkshire points out that playmaking has been an issue for the Canadiens for quite some time, even with the addition of a creator like Jonathan Drouin. Berkshire wonders if Domi (who Berkshire deems a “borderline elite playmaker”) could make a big difference in that regard.

Domi spent a huge chunk of last season playing on a line with Christian Dvorak, and he shot 9.9 per cent after scoring on 17 per cent of his shots last season, so his presence doesn’t guarantee anything, but the playmaking ability Domi displays is absolutely something the Canadiens are trying to address here, and I think they’re banking on adding that playmaking ability to a group of shooting forwards making a bigger impact on team goals than Galchenyuk’s style of play would.

Again, this isn’t to say that Domi is more valuable than Galchenyuk. (Berkshire ultimately describes Galchenyuk as “the better, more talented, more dynamic player,” for example.)

Instead, it’s merely important to recognize that this might not be as egregious as the Shea WeberP.K. Subban trade.

Interestingly, it’s easy to imagine both Galchenyuk and Domi enjoying improved results in 2018-19, at least if healthy. Domi might not be much of a goal threat, but it’s tough to imagine him suffering through another six shooting percentage. Galchenyuk fell off his typical goal pace thanks in part to an 8.9 shooting percentage in 2017-18 (versus 16.3 percent in 2016-17 and 12.4 for his career).

There’s also the matter of Domi’s cap hit ($3.15 million) coming in cheaper than that of Alex Galchenyuk ($4.9M), but you can dive deeper into those aspects here.

Does this mean that the Canadiens won the trade? Right now, the answer seems to be “No.”

The point is that this might not be remembered as the sort of head-shaking disaster that the Subban – Weber trade ended up being and the Mikhail Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin swap looks like after the first year.

That said, it’s still worth giving Marc Bergevin a hard time about, because “maybe not as bad as it looks” isn’t the ideal peak for a GM’s recent trades.

More on the Domi – Galchenyuk trade

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.

Blues GM confirms Kovalchuk interest, makes Jagr comparison

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PHT’s Adam Gretz placed the St. Louis Blues fifth in his power rankings for potential Ilya Kovalchuk destinations earlier week, citing the team’s need for a boost on offense (while highlighting the tantalizing potential of Kovalchuk with Vladimir Tarasenko).

It sounds like Blues GM Doug Armstrong is throwing his team’s name in the hat, if nothing else. He confirmed the Blues’ interest in Kovalchuk, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Always looking to improve our team,” Armstrong said. “We’re like all teams. He’s 35 years old, there’s risk involved with players of that age. But he could be Jaromir Jagr. He could start slowing down at 41. Or he could come back and hit the wall. You never know.”

Armstrong also mentioned that, unlike teams such as the Sharks and Kings, the Blues didn’t arrange a face-to-face meeting with Kovalchuk. It’s unclear if that fact indicates a lower level of interest from St. Louis and/or Kovalchuk.

The age comments are more than just pointing out the obvious, by the way.

Kovalchuk would count as a 35+ contract, and with his most recent ask being a manageable cap hit yet a deal that would ask for some term at three years, a team would need to be confident that signing him would be worth it in the future. Not just now.

Taking a look at the Blues’ Cap Friendly page, such a risk would be reasonable for St. Louis, yet they would need to mull over the ramifications.

Three especially noteworthy players currently have three years remaining on their contracts: Jaden Schwartz, Jake Allen, and Alexander Steen. It might surprise some to realize that Steen is already 34, but Schwartz and Allen are young enough that the Blues must acknowledge that raises could be coming.

(Personally, that seems most pressing for Schwartz, as Allen has his critics as an up-and-down No. 1 goalie.)

A couple other looming raises could make Kovalchuk’s hypothetical three-year deal a bigger burden, as such a deal would run concurrently with raises in 2020-21. Both Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5 million cap hit) and Brayden Schenn ($5.125M) stand to make a lot more money once their bargain deals expire after 2019-20.

Overall, the Blues are in a fantastic situation to make it all work.

They only have about $62M committed to 18 players heading into next season, and the only plus of Robby Fabbri‘s terrible injury luck for St. Louis is that the RFA is likely to sign a team-friendly contract. (Assuming that Fabbri gets a clean bill of health.)

The Blues stand as a dark horse candidate for John Tavares for the same sort of reasons that Kovalchuk would make sense. While last season’s failure to make the playoffs was a disappointment, they’ve generally been competitive. A big-time addition could really accelerate that improvement, and this team has money to burn (for now). St. Louis also boasts some prominent players in the thick of their primes.

And, sure, Tarasenko’s presence cannot hurt.

St. Louis isn’t exactly like the Ducks, a team that hasn’t drafted a Russian player since 2009. While Tarasenko is the most prominent countryman on the Blues roster, St. Louis also employs Ivan Barbashev, Dmitrij Jaskin, and Nikita Soshnikov. (Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka also isn’t far removed from a three-year sojourn in the KHL, for whatever that’s worth.)

Long story short, the Blues have plenty of reasons to legitimately pursue Kovalchuk, and there’s some reason to believe that St. Louis would be a good fit for him.

That said, they’ll need to get in line … and they may not be in the front of that queue when free agency begins in July.

MORE ON THE KOVALCHUK SWEEPSTAKES

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.

Flames probably won’t land first-rounder (or helicopter?) in 2018 NHL Draft

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When the Calgary Flames sent a rich package of future assets to the New York Islanders for Travis Hamonic, it seemed like a reasonable risk. Especially for a team with lofty aspirations.

Sometimes a failed trade is obvious immediately; other times, hindsight provides clarity. In retrospect, GM Brad Treliving and the Flames suffered a big loss there. Calgary missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Hamonic wasn’t the steadying force on defense the Flames were hoping for.

Missing the postseason was already painful for the Flames, but next weekend’s draft weekend figures to rub salt in those wounds.

Thanks to Treliving’s (not unreasonable) decision to push some of his chips to the middle of the table, the Flames don’t have a pick in the first, second, or third rounds as of this writing. (Mike Smith worked out better for Calgary, but he also cost them their third-rounder.)

After the dust settled and people lost jobs, the Flames’ first two picks are currently slated for the fourth round: choices 105 and 108.

At least Treliving provided a great line about the Flames’ low odds of trading into the first round, via NHL.com’s Tim Campbell.

“Would we like to get into the first round? Yeah,” Treliving said on Friday. “I’d like a helicopter too.”

“There’s a price. We’re not going to do something just so we can call a name on Friday. It takes a fairly good price to get in there. Are we trying to manufacture some more picks? Sure. We’re looking it.”

One can only imagine the helicopter memes and Photoshops that might surface from this comment, at least if we’re lucky. Really, the bigger question is: do you go with references to Arnold in “Predator” or do you go a little more arthouse with “Apocalypse Now?” Flames fans and front office members will have time to consider these things while other teams ponder which prospects they should nab.

All kidding aside, Flames fans should be pleased that Treliving isn’t trying to sell the farm (or chopper) just to save face during the draft.

A lesser GM might compound the mistake by losing another trade to get a better pick or two. Instead, the Flames seem more likely to live to fight another day.

Maybe July 1, or early July, could stand as that day?

Via Cap Friendly, the Flames currently allocate $62.51 million in cap space to 15 players. Depending upon the height of ceiling, Calgary could carry approximately $18-$20M. While they have quite a few RFAs, none are really of the major variety. So Treliving set himself up with room to maneuver if he likes what he sees on the open market.

Granted, the Flames do need to be careful, as Matthew Tkachuk‘s rookie deal will expire after 2018-19, and the same is true for aging veteran Mike Smith’s $4.25M cap hit.

All things considered, the Flames are probably justified in swinging for the fences again, even if last season’s failure might inspire some trigger-shyness.

Yes, some key players such as Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Tkachuk, and Dougie Hamilton are all in their prime years (or Tkachuk is set to enter his), but there are also substantial players whose windows could close soon. Norris-caliber defenseman Mark Giordano is 34. Smith is 36.

There’s a lot to like with that roster, to the point that it remains surprising that they endured such a tepid 2017-18 season.

Surrounding that promising core with a better supporting cast is the key, and this summer can be huge in that regard. It’s just clear that the Flames aren’t likely to make those important additions via picks in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Now, a bold trade involving NHL-ready players during draft weekend? Pulling that off seems like a distinct possibility.

(Hey, they’ll need something to do.)

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.

Galchenyuk trade just one reason Coyotes are excited

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Here’s a confession: last summer, I got a little too excited about the Arizona Coyotes’ progress.

It turns out that 2017-18 was a little too early to take the Coyotes seriously, but there are still reasons for optimism. The Alex GalchenyukMax Domi trade stands as the exclamation point at the end of a Coyotes fan’s sentence.

Sometimes teams improve by leaps and bounds. Other times, it’s more about baby steps.

After seeing Arizona stumble a bit this past season, it’s difficult to tell how far they’ve come. Either way, there are reasons to be increasingly positive about what GM John Chayka is doing, so let’s lay them out.

  • The Galchenyuk trade looks like a win.

Time will tell if it’s a big win (or even a win at all?). At the moment, it seems significant. Sure, one can discuss some of the ways that things might work out better than expected for Montreal, but much of that optimism hinges on better luck for Domi.

If you had to make a safe bet, you’d wager on Arizona’s side. Most GMs would take that.

  • Last summer’s trades quietly worked nicely.

There’s a solid chance that tuned-in hockey fans noted that Antti Raanta pulled off a solid first season as a starting goalie, at least after shaking off injury issues early on. He was rewarded with a three-year extension that carries a $4.25 million cap hit, a deal that finds a pretty nifty compromise between mitigating risks for the Coyotes with rewarding Raanta’s patience and hard work.

(Considering his fantastic .930 save percentage in 2017-18 and strong .922 career average, it could end up being a steal.)

The quieter development is that Derek Stepan played quite well, too.

Despite poor shooting luck (14 goals on 209 SOG for just a 6.7 shooting percentage), Stepan still scored his typical 56 points. That’s not a world-beating output, but it’s the type of production that the Coyotes more or less expected from the 27-year-old center.

Stepan can be part of the solution in Arizona.

  • A team that once looked weak down the middle seems formidable.

Landing Galchenyuk and Stepan eases the pressure on certain players. If the Coyotes believe that Dylan Strome would be a more comfortable fit on the wing, that isn’t quite as disappointing now.

  • They can add more talent this summer.

On one hand, it’s tough to gauge how much the Coyotes can really be a factor in free agency, considering their money challenges. Especially since they’re likely to pay up to extend Oliver Ekman-Larsson once they’re permitted by the CBA.

Still, there’s a chance they can add a small piece or two, and they also face interesting opportunities with the fifth pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

They could add to their very modern-styled group of defensemen (OEL, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers all appeal to “fancy stats” types) by landing a prospect like Quinn Hughes. On the other hand, perhaps they’d add a forward who could make a near-future impact such as Brady Tkachuk?

Sure, it would have been great if they happened upon the top pick and were gifted Rasmus Dahlin, but they can still add a blue chip next weekend.

  • Their young players could improve.

It’s easy to forget that Dylan Strome is still just 21. Coyotes fans may always cringe at Mitch Marner‘s superior development (picked fourth after Strome went third overall in 2015), but that doesn’t mean that the ship has sailed on Strome as an NHL-caliber player.

The 2016 NHL Draft presents interesting questions as well.

“Beast” defenseman Jakob Chychrun‘s value is still unclear after his sophomore season was hindered by injury issues. Clayton Keller, meanwhile, looks like a fantastic find; the tantalizing question is: “How high is his ceiling?”

  • Enviable flexibility

In recent years, the Coyotes served as an Island of Misfit Contracts, absorbing dead cap space in Pavel Datsyuk’s and Chris Pronger’s deals in exchange for futures. They’ll see Dave Bolland‘s contract expire after 2018-19.

The nice thing for Chayka and the Coyotes is that they can continue in that potentially fruitful direction, but only if they choose to.

Simply put, this team isn’t anchored to too many problem contracts of their own doing. As of this writing, their longest contracts run for three seasons. OEL will change that, and few would really complain. The point is, the Coyotes enjoy the luxury of room to maneuver.

No doubt, the in-house budget stands as a concern, yet the Coyotes don’t need to fret about dollars going to waste.

***

No doubt about it, the Coyotes have plenty of work to do. The good news is that, so far, this group is getting the job done.

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.