Krejci, Staal, Power among Olympic men’s hockey players to watch

olympic men's hockey
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BEIJING — David Krejci went home to the Czech Republic to play one more season in front of friends and family. Eric Staal did not get an NHL contract despite helping Montreal reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Thanks to the NHL bowing out of the Beijing Games, Krejci and Staal are at the Olympics once again.

Krejci and Staal are among the biggest names at a men’s hockey tournament that’s a who’s who of former and likely future NHL players.

“It’s going to be competitive,” said Staal, who is Canada’s captain. “It shows that the Olympic Games is something special. There’s a few other guys on other countries that were fresh off the league last year, and obviously this is a great experience for us to be able to keep playing competitively. It’s going to be great.”

Here are some players to watch when games begin Wednesday:

DAVID KREJCI

Just 35, the longtime Boston Bruins center would be in the NHL this season if he wanted to be. After putting up 854 points in 1,112 games in North America and winning the Cup in 2011, Krejci has 17 goals and 19 assists this season in the Czech league and is in the Olympics for the third time after playing in 2010 and 2014.

Czech Republic goaltender Roman Will said Krejci “will be the best player in the tournament.” After playing against Krejci in the NHL, Lukas Sedlak is glad they are teammates at the Olympics.

“He’s really smart,” Sedlak said. “He knows the game. He knows where to go. He thinks one step ahead, so he knows where all the players are going to be, so I think that’s his biggest strength.”

Coach Filip Pesan believes Krejci’s experience on the smaller, NHL-sized ice will help and expects the wily veteran to get up to speed quickly at the international level, which is above the Czech league. The Czechs open the tournament Wednesday against Denmark, which is in the Olympics for the first time.

ERIC STAAL

The new Captain Canada chuckled at the notion of being the biggest men’s hockey star in the Olympics.

“Well, we’ll see when the games start,” Staal said. “I’m excited to be here. It’s been a unique couple of years here with everything going in the world and when the NHL opted to not play and my situation was what it was and I jumped at this chance.”

Staal, 37, skated in 21 games with the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs last year when they reached the final. He won the Cup with Carolina in 2006 and with 2007 world championship and 2010 Olympic titles is one of 29 players in hockey’s prestigious Triple Gold Club.

“I’m sure he wanted to add another Olympic gold to his accolades,” said Canada teammate Daniel Winnik, whose last NHL shift in 2018 came with Staal. “Eric’s going to be a calming voice in the room for us. He’s wearing the ‘C’ for a reason.”

And the “C” is not just for show. Staal is expected to be the No. 1 center for Canada, which opens the tournament Thursday against 2018 silver medalist Germany.

MATTY BENIERS

Among the 15 college players on the U.S. roster, Beniers offers the most potential to be a difference maker.

The No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft by the expansion Seattle Kraken, Beniers has 36 points in 28 games this season at Michigan, which is a top contender for the NCAA title. He’s expected to get some power-play time for the U.S., which plays its first game Thursday against host China and its handful of American players.

Defenseman Jake Sanderson could miss that game after his travel was delayed by positive virus test results. The U.S. faces Canada on Saturday, and Sanderson’s addition for that showdown and beyond would be a major boost.

OWEN POWER

The only player taken ahead of Beniers was Power, who went first to the Sabres and could join Buffalo in the NHL this spring after his college season wraps up. Power is expected to be one of the top four defensemen for Canada, which has an older roster than the U.S.

Power would have been one of Canada’s best players at the world junior championship in December. That tournament getting canceled because of COVID-19 outbreak fears after play was under way means this is a second chance for Power to wear the maple leaf and make an impact.

“We kind of got notice (the Olympics) may be a possibility when the NHL announced they weren’t going,” Power said. “I don’t want to say made up (for it), but it was kind of just nice knowing that we most likely have another opportunity to come play for Canada even though world juniors was over.”

No. 3 pick Mason McTavish, who has already has three points in nine NHL games with the Anaheim Ducks, is Canada’s youngest player and could see time on the top line alongside Staal.

“Great player, man,” Staal said. “He’s going to play a long time. You can tell that pretty quick. … To be out there with him right now, for me, is a lot of fun. Great energy, great players. He’s a big, strong kid. He knows where to be on the ice, I think, getting around those dirty areas he’s real solid.”

JURAJ SLAFKOVSKY AND SIMON NEMEC

The two youngest members of the tournament play for Slovakia. Winger Juraj Slafkovsky and defenseman Simon Nemec are 17 and projected to be first-round picks in this year’s NHL draft.

“(Nemec) has incredible vision of the game, and he has a feel for hockey — how it should be played,” said longtime NHL assistant Craig Ramsay, who is coaching Slovakia. “Slafkovsky is just a giant of a guy, and he has good hands and good feet. He has amazing potential to be an NHL hocky player. Both of them, I believe, can play in the league and we’re really hoping to see good things from them and that they get a chance and they take advantage of it.”

Slafkovsky could be a top-10 if not a top-five pick. He does not turn 18 until March — so he must wear a full cage for the tournament — and is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds.

“The people who are interested about me, I think they are going to watch,” said Slafkovsky, who wants to show “that I can play men’s level and show my strength and show that I can play in the NHL soon.”

VADIM SHIPACHYOV

The Russians’ captain played three games in the NHL for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18 and scored one goal after signing a $9 million, three-year contract. He refused to report to the minors after being assigned to the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, had his contract terminated and returned to the KHL.

Shipachyov dressed for only one game for the Russians when they won gold at the 2018 Olympics without NHL players. Now he’s their captain and leads the KHL in scoring with 67 points in 48 games.

“He’s a great passer,” teammate Mikhail Grigorenko said. “He’s one of the best passers in the world and obviously the captain, I think he’s got good leadership, too.”

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.