Canada’s women’s hockey reinvents itself after Olympic loss

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BEIJING — The Canadians just finished making brisk work of Sweden in the quarterfinal round of the women’s Olympic hockey tournament, and yet coach Troy Ryan wasn’t prepared to assess just how dominant his team can be.

A better time to ask might be Thursday, when the gold medal is awarded.

The Canadians are now considered the favorites, having raised the bar of the women’s game with a dynamic and relentless, four-line transition attack that has outscored opponents by a combined 44-5 at the Beijing Games.

It’ll take a little more to impress Ryan.

“Honestly, we keep things pretty simple in our minds,” said Ryan on Friday, following an 11-0 win over Sweden in which Canada scored five times on six shots during a second-period span of 7:25. “I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel at all.”

Perhaps not.

But the Canadians, in three-plus years under Ryan, are reinventing themselves following the lowest points in their proud history.

The downturn began with a gold-medal loss to arch-rival United States at the 2018 Winter Games, which ended Canada’s run of four Olympic championships. The following year, the Canadians settled for bronze in failing to reach the world championship final for the first time in tournament history.

The losses led to Ryan and his staff transforming what had been both a stale team culture and style of play.

They made the game fun again by placing a focus on speed and transition to increase offense and complement the strengths of the ultra-talented pool Canada draws from. And with that, came an emphasis on not being afraid of making mistakes.

“We’ve got to be OK with the mistakes, because one of the things we talked about was how do you improve your game if you don’t leave a little room for error?” he said.

The change paid off at the world championships in August, when Canada’s 3-2 overtime win over the U.S. in the title game ended the Americans’ run of five tournament titles.

Ryan’s strategy centers on using Canada’s play-making defenders to exit the zone as quickly as possible — accepting the risk of turnovers to keep opponents on their heels.

“I think we had become a little robotic in the way we played,” said Natalie Spooner, who leads the tournament with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists). “The quicker we play on defense, the quicker we get the puck out, let’s us play offense and let’s us do our thing.”

Canada will face Switzerland, and the U.S, coming off a 4-1 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic, will play Finland in the semifinals on Monday. Both games are preliminary round rematches after Canada defeated the Swiss 12-1, and the Americans beat Finland 5-2.

Finland advanced with a 7-1 win over Japan on Saturday, with Petra Nieminen scoring three goals and adding two assists. In Switzerland’s 4-2 win over the Russian Olympic Committee, Alina Muller converted Lara Stalder’s pass on a 2-on-1 break to score the go-ahead goal with 2:37 remaining in regulation and then added an empty-netter.

Swiss coach Colin Muller sees a significant jump in Canada’s game since the world championships.

“It’s ridiculous. I think Canadians and the U.S. have stepped up their game, but for me at the moment, Canada, maybe more,” Muller said. “It’s a different animal than what I even saw in August. And when I compare back two years ago and three years ago and that 2019 worlds, it’s a different team.”

The Canadians have dialed it up a notch after a four-month leadup of practices and games that allowed them to polish their chemistry.

Canada leads the tournament in scoring efficiency with 44 goals on just 250 shots, and power-play efficiency in converting 10 of 20 chances. Canada’s 4-2 win over the U.S. last week matched the most the team has ever scored against its cross-border foes in Olympic play.

Meanwhile, Canadians Brianne Jenner and newcomer Sarah Fillier are tied for the tournament lead with eight goals each, one short of matching an Olympic record set by Canada’s Meghan Agosta and Switzerland’s Stephanie Marty at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“Being able to score as many goals as we have, and scored in so many different ways really gives us confidence,” forward Blayre Turnbull said. “Some of us definitely played a bit more of an uptight game where we were gripping our stick and just thinking about mistakes. We’ve done a big 180 as a program.”

The change is night and day for goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens, who actually quit playing hockey after 2018 because she no longer enjoyed it. She attended Wisconsin to get her master’s degree in accounting, where Desbiens doubled as a goalie coach for the Badgers women’s team.

Coaching and the change in Canada’s culture lured her back.

“I think you see the fruits by seeing all the smiles on the ice,” said Desbiens, who has allowed four goals on 97 shots in three games. “Troy’s done a good job of creating a safe environment and making sure that all the players can play to their best ability and not have to hold on to their sticks too tight.”

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    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

    caufield surgery
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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.