Olympic men’s semifinals lack U.S. and Canada for 1st time since 2006

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Just because NHL players weren’t at the Olympics doesn’t mean the United States or Canada had lower expectations.

After rolling through the preliminary round undefeated, the young Americans looked capable of winning the country’s first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey since 1980. Even though the Canadians were not nearly as convincing, simply being Canada was enough to think they could go all the way.

“Part of wearing this jersey is winning,” Canada goaltender Matt Tompkins said after a 2-0 loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals. “Came here to win a gold medal and anything less than that (is) not what we were hoping for.”

Certainly North American TV executives weren’t hoping for this either: the first men’s hockey semifinals at the Olympics without the U.S. or Canada since 2006. It’s a massive disappointment for each team, especially because the tournament took place on the smaller, NHL-sized ice that’s more tailored to a North American style.

Canada was looking to improve on the bronze it won in Pyeongchang four years ago, when NHL players did not participate for the first time since 1998. The U.S. was so dominant early that the unexpected end in a quarterfinal loss to Slovakia in a shootout stung harder.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow, it really is, just losing in any fashion,” U.S. coach David Quinn said. “We just felt so good about the direction of our team and the way we were playing.”

They’re now done playing, leaving three of the same semifinalists from 16 years ago in Sweden, Finland and the Russians. Slovakia is the newcomer, coached by Canada-born Craig Ramsay and set to play for the chance at the first Olympic hockey medal since the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

“We are happy with the quality — really good games,” International Ice Hockey Federation council vice president Petr Briza said Thursday. “We had some surprises. I think any hockey tournament needs some good surprises, so congratulations to Slovakia (on making) the semifinals.”

Ramsay’s team is on the verge of its own “Miracle On Ice” — zázrak na ľade in Slovak — thanks to the 70-year-old hockey lifer running the show behind the bench and 17-year-old star Juraj Slafkovsky leading the tournament in goals with five.

Slafkovsky was 6 the last time Slovakia reached the semifinals, back in 2010. He tried to watch, but he had to go to kindergarten.

Ramsay had already played 14 NHL seasons, spent almost two decades as an assistant and won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Of course Slafkovsky, whom Ramsay has entrusted with ice time in all situations despite being the youngest player in the tournament, scored in the upset of the U.S to help Slovakia advance.

“It feels amazing,” Slafkovsky said. “It happened last time 12 years ago and now again. I can’t wait to play in the semifinals.”

Slovakia faces second-seeded Finland, which is unbeaten in four games and has outscored opponents 18-7. The team is starting to play hallmark Finnish defensive hockey.

“We are confident, and we try to improve all the time,” said alternate captain Marko Attila, who has two goals in three games since spending six days in isolation. “I think if you want to win something here in this kind of tournament, you have to have good defense.”

Defense by Sweden, which faces the Russians in the other semifinal, is a big reason Canada is out of the Olympics. Different from the U.S., which led Slovakia for half of regulation before giving up a bad bounce in the final minute and was knocked out in a five-round shootout, Canada was shut out by the Swedes and struggled to find its game.

“Too many shifts where we were trying to just survive,” defenseman Maxim Noreau said. “Wasn’t consistent enough.”

That inconsistency was enough to create the kind of early exit Canada is not used to at the Olympics. As forward Eric O’Dell said, Canada is “expected to win all the time.”

“We came here to win the gold medal,” Tomkins said. “Anything short of a gold medal is disappointing for us.”

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.