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US upsets Canada, Russia blanks France to begin worlds

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Cam Atkinson scored the winner for the United States to prevail over Canada 5-4 after a penalty shootout in their opening game at the world ice hockey championship on Friday.

Also, Olympic champion Russia thrashed France 7-0.

Dylan Larkin scored twice for the United States to hand Canada a bitter start to its quest for a third world title in four years.

”Hopefully, we’ll get better as the tournament goes on,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane, playing his first worlds in 10 years, said. ”We can play better than that.”

At 4-3 down, Canada captain Connor McDavid found defenseman Colton Parayko between the circles to equalize with 9:12 remaining in regulation.

In overtime, both teams wasted a power play, and the Group B game in Herning was decided in the shootout.

Canada blew an early 2-0 lead. Pierre-Luc Dubois didn’t waste time and swept the puck high past goalie Keith Kinkaid 47 seconds into the first period.

Ryan O'Reilly doubled the lead with 7:37 left in the period, then Andres Lee pulled one back for the U.S. with a wristed shot.

Larkin tied the score 43 seconds into the second, knocking in a backhand pass from Chris Kreider.

”We had a sloppy first period but Keith was unbelievable tonight,” Larkin said. ”We’re gonna need him through the tournament to play like that.”

Kinkaid made 40 saves as Canada outshot the U.S. 44-25.

”After the first, we settled in and it was nice to get tied up and to get a lead. And he did the rest,” Larkin said.

Midway through the second, forward Johnny Gaudreau scored after Kane fed him a cross to put the U.S. 3-2 ahead.

Anthony Beauvillier answered for Canada on a rebound.

Larkin added his second 3:27 into the final period for the 4-3 lead.

In Copenhagen, Kirill Kaprizov, Pavel Buchnevich and Evgenii Dadonov struck goals midway through the opening period to put Russia in command of their Group A game. Kaprizov added his second in the middle period.

Later Friday, defending champion Sweden played Belarus, and Olympic runner-up Germany faced host Denmark.

Brian Burke stepping away from Flames organization

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After serving as the Calgary Flames’ President of Hockey Operations since the 2013 season the team announced on Friday that Brian Burke is stepping back from the organization on May 1.

Flames President and CEO Ken King said in a statement that when Burke took over the job they had discussed a four-to-five year timeline for his role, and that both sides determined this year that they would move on.

“When Brian came to us in September 2013 we discussed a structure and timeline of four to five years for his new role. Each year we review our mandate going forward and determined together that we would move on,” said King in the statement.

“Brian’s leadership and guidance of our hockey operations and work with General Manager Brad Treliving have been exemplary and we are grateful for his contributions. His charity work and organizational representation in our community are legendary as he has touched so many with his generosity.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Shortly after the announcement by the Flames Burke told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis that it was a “sensible” time for him and the Flames management to part ways as friends, and that when Treliving’s contract was extended he knew he would become redundant within the front office.

During Burke’s time in the front office the Flames qualified for the playoffs just two times, losing in the second-round in 2014-15 and in the first round last season. The Flames followed up last year’s exit by making a couple of huge splashes over the summer, acquiring starting goalie Mike Smith from the Arizona Coyotes and defenseman Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders in an effort to build what looked on paper to be one of the best blue lines in the Western Conference. With a talented young core led by Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Sean Monahan expectations were extremely high heading into the season.

The team on the ice failed to reach them, finishing with 10 fewer points than it did a season ago and missing the playoffs entirely. Making matters worse, because they traded their first-round pick to the Islanders in the Hamonic deal they do not even have a shot to land the top pick — expected to be Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin — in the draft lottery.

So what is next for Burke?

Sportsnet in Canada announced on Friday that he will be providing insights, commentary and analysis on all of their media platforms — television, radio, digital — for the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He will make his first appearance this weekend.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Can Bill Peters find NHL success with Flames?

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The search for a new head coach lasted less than a week with Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving having interest in hiring only one man — Bill Peters.

It was six days ago that Treliving canned Gulutzan and said his next head coach would have NHL experience. Peters would decide on Friday to opt-out of the final year of his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, which also meant walking away from a guaranteed $1.6 million salary for 2018-19. He immediately became favorite and the only candidate for the job.

“This is an individual I’m familiar with. This is the individual at the time once we made a change I was focused upon,” Treliving said on Monday. “I was very familiar with the field that was out there. There’s some great candidates. I was focused on Bill.”

Peters, who is an Alberta native and worked with Treliving at the 2016 IIHF World Championships, comes with four seasons of experience as an NHL head coach having led the Carolina Hurricanes since 2014-15. Those four seasons weren’t very successful, however, as the team finished with a combined 137-138-53 record and zero playoff appearances.

That lack of success wasn’t enough to deter Treliving from making the hire. The decision was based more on their brief time together on Canada’s staff two years ago and intel the GM has gathered over the years.

“He’s prepared. I think he’s a student of the modern game. I think he’s relationship-driven with players,” Treliving said. “He’s honest and direct, and as you’ll quickly come to realize, he’s going to be a tremendous addition to our staff.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

With Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton locked up long-term, Peters arrives in Calgary with a roster that has plenty of talent on both ends of the rink. The Hurricanes were a good possession team under him, and that’s one thing the new head coach wants to continue to see with his new roster.

“We’re going to play a game that’s puck possession, ‘D’ active. Face-offs are important — that’s your first 50/50 battle of your shift is a face-off,” Peters said. “I want to have the puck, I want to possess the puck. I want to make sure we have value on the puck when we have it, make good plays, strong plays with it, be hard on it, be a hard team to play against, take advantage of playing on the good ice at the Saddledome.”

While Carolina’s offensive numbers were fine under Peters, the defensive side did not improve. Yeah, there was some terrible goaltending that was a hindrance but the shot suppression did not get better with the Hurricanes allowing an average of 2.02 even strength shots more per game from Year 1 to Year 4.

Peters takes over a Flames team that saw a second half swoon destroy their playoff hopes and lead to the dismissal of their head coach. In Carolina, there was hope in the early days for growth with a young roster, but after a lack of progress as expectations increased during his tenure, it was clear what he was implementing wasn’t working and he could not get through to his players.

Wanting to be a top-10 team in primary statisical categories, the expectations are even higher now for Peters to succeed with the Flames. Will he get a different response here in Calgary compared to Carolina?

“I want to be a team that gets off to a good start, sustains that quality start and has a playoff spot wrapped up and you’re fighting for home ice,” Peters said. “That’s what I would love to see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Why Flames are going out with a whimper

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On March 13, Mike Smith blanked the Edmonton Oilers, giving the Calgary Flames at least some hope in making a playoff push.

The Flames haven’t won a game since, dropping five in a row by a soul-crushing cumulative differential of 25-7. Their closest losses were by three goals. Woof.

Calgary now sits at 80 points with only six games remaining, all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. (The second West wild-card team, as of this writing, is the Ducks at 89 points, and they hold a game in hand on the Flames. Woof again.)

Maybe it was already too late for the Flames when Smith shut out the Oil, but this five-game flop really buried any long-shot hopes. Now, Calgary must close out the season and ponder what to change during a summer that will demand serious soul-searching.

Let’s ponder what went wrong.

Bad luck

Losing Smith for a lengthy, crucial stretch for about a month (13 games) struck a brutal blow to a team that sometimes asked him to clean up some significant mistakes.

That said, overall, the Flames pass the sniff test as far as possession metrics go. This team simply hasn’t been able to finish enough chances despite often hogging the puck, to the point that it’s become an uncomfortable refrain for fans and media alike.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s measures, the Flames’ 6.87 shooting percentage at even-strength ranks among the bottom five in the NHL. That’s not an end-all, be-all stat, yet consider that the bottom eight teams look all but assured to miss the playoffs.

They’ve been struggling on special teams, too, as their 16.6 percent success rate ranks fifth-worst in the NHL. Allowing seven shorthanded goals only pours more salt in their wounds. The power play’s been especially miserable lately, only converting one time since Feb. 27 (1-for-37).

Not enough support

On paper, the Flames seem like they should at least be a playoff team, if not a legitimate contender.

Mark Giordano seems like a hot streak and a good squad away from getting more Norris Trophy buzz, while Dougie Hamilton is the type of producer you want in a modern system. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan make for a dynamic duo, while the “3M” line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Frolik hold the puck hostage like few other trios. Smith’s also frequently given the Flames the goaltending they’ve craved for some time.

The problem is that, in the modern NHL, you need your supporting cast to buttress those top players, and that hasn’t worked out often enough for Calgary.

Travis Hamonic‘s had his struggles, making it that much more painful that the Flames gave up such a massive package of picks for the defenseman, including their 2019 first-rounder. T.J. Brodie‘s seen his ups and downs, too.

Such struggles would be easier to stomach if certain forwards panned out. It’s difficult not to pick on Sam Bennett, the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, who is stuck at 26 points in 76 games after failing to score a goal or an assist for the last seven games.

Whether you pin it on Father Time, untimely injuries, or other factors, the Jaromir Jagr experiment was also a bust.

***

The Flames have done a lot right in building this team.

Aside from Tkachuk (whose rookie deal expires after 2018-19), the Flames have their core members locked up long-term. In the case of someone like Gaudreau, they’re getting a star player at a bargain rate of $6.75M through 2021-22.

Still, Smith is 36, and maybe more alarmingly, Giordano is already 34.

With aging-but-important players like those, you never know when the bottom might fall out and the window really closes. It’s easy to picture Calgary figuring a few things out – do they make trades, a key signing, maybe a coaching change? – and become as deadly on the ice as they are in some of our imaginations.

None of this erases the bitter taste of failure for the team and its fans, though.

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.

Smith shutting out McDavid, Oilers should give Flames hope

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When the Calgary Flames once again made wholesale changes to their goalie duo in the summer, focusing on bringing in Mike Smith, there were plenty of skeptics. (Myself included.)

On one hand, the 35-year-old boasts considerable puckhandling skills, and the sort of large frame NHL teams seek – sometimes demand – in a starting goalie. While his stats were up-and-down during his run with the Arizona/Phoenix Coyotes, Smith also showed the ability to stand on his head and stop a barrage of shots.

That said, consistency’s often been an issue for Smith, and that includes being healthy enough to consistently stay on the ice.

So far in 2017-18, both the Flames and their critics have been partially right. GM Brad Treliving targeted Smith, and looked smart in recalling his Coyotes days in doing so, as the big goalie’s been huge for Calgary, generating a .922 save percentage. That said, his latest injury cost him 13 games, leaving Calgary in a predicament where missing the playoffs is a very real fear.

Things didn’t look great in his first game back, as Smith and the Flames fell to the even-more-lost New York Islanders 5-2, with Smith allowing four goals. Luckily, he didn’t wait long to remind people why he’s been so badly missed, as Smith put on quite a performance against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, allowing Johnny Gaudreau‘s lone goal to stand up in a 1-0 win last night.

McDavid set up some great chances for Ryan Strome, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and himself, but Smith denied all of them, and the Flames really took it to the Oilers superstar physically:

The Flames still stand at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races, but this was a reassuring win, especially in seeing Smith look so brilliant.

Take a look at some of the teams they’re chasing between the wild-card spots and the Pacific seeds within reasonable reach:

Pacific second and third (Vegas out of reach)
2. Sharks: 83 points in 69 games, 33 ROW
3. Kings: 82 points in 70 GP, 36 ROW

First WC- Avalanche: 82 points in 69 GP, 36 ROW
Second WC- Stars: 82 points in 70 GP, 34 ROW

Ducks: 80 points in 70 GP, 30 ROW
Flames: 80 points in 71 GP, 33 ROW
Blues: 79 points in 69 GP, 34 ROW

Again, just about all of those teams have some sort of edge on the Flames, yet they do have some agency in fighting back. They’ll face the Sharks twice, with the next match taking place on Friday in Calgary. The make-or-break stretch will likely come from March 21-26: a home game against the Ducks, then vs. the Kings in Los Angeles and the Sharks in San Jose.

No doubt, the odds are against them. Sports Club Stats, for instance, only gives Calgary a 22.2-percent chance to make the playoffs, and that’s with a 5.9-percent bump from blanking the Oilers.

It’s lot easier to believe in their chances with Smith back in the lineup and on the top of his game, however, so Tuesday had to renew some hope.

And, hey, they might also get some more balance in the forward groups with Kris Versteeg back:

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.