INSIDE HOCKEY » USA Get Inside! Sat, 20 Sep 2014 02:40:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Pens Olympians Return with Gold, Bronze, Disappointment and Injury Mon, 24 Feb 2014 02:59:38 +0000

Of the 11 representatives the Pittsburgh Penguins sent to the Sochi Olympics, four are coming home with medals. Captain Sidney Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz both scored in Canada’s 3-0 win over Sweden to claim gold, and Jussi Jokinen and 19-year-old phenom Olli Maatta did the same in Finland’s 5-0 thrashing of the U.S. to win bronze.

“Seeing the smiles on their faces was pretty special and, being Canadian and knowing how much it means to represent your company, [with] all the fans in Canada watching, it would’ve been something special,” said Penguins forward James Neal, who was part of Team Canada’s Olympic camp last summer and on the shortlist to replace injured Steven Stamkos at the Olympics.

“They did a good job and they came up big at the biggest time in the tournament. Good for them. Those guys made a whole country proud.”

“Dominating performance by the Canadians,” said Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, a Minnesotan who was rooting for Team USA. “They didn’t give up anything. [Goaltender Carey] Price was solid; their defensemen were really, really good; and you saw the depth that they had. A good showing for them, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were represented pretty well, too.”

Of the Finns, Neal said, “Jussi and Olli were unbelievable. I watched them a little bit throughout and they were great all tournament. It’s going to be great for us. They’re going to come back with a lot of confidence.”

For U.S. and Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff, however, they and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin are coming home empty-handed, carrying the disappointment of being the tournament’s best team in their first four games – going 4-0 and leading all teams with 20 goals – then collapsing, being shut out twice in a 24-hour period to finish off the medal stand.

After losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to Canada to miss out on the gold-medal game, Team USA came out flat and, in the words of several of its players, “passive” against the Finns, as they moved from an aggressive forechecking game to a 1-2-2 defensive style.

“It’s obviously tough. They probably put so much into the Canadian-U.S. game that they got a little ahead of themselves,” Neal said. “You put so much emphasis on trying to win gold, and they played so quick right after that game. It was probably such a letdown for them and tough to get back going again. Finland had a day [off] and they were ready to go; they came out flying.

“Hopefully coach and Brooksie can get right back where they left off. They’re huge parts of our team, and we’re excited to get going again.”

Martin, meanwhile, is returning with a cast after suffering a hand injury in Team USA’s win over the Czech Republic in the elimination round. He missed the last two games of the tournament – significantly impacting the team’s ability to play its puck-possession style – and could miss a month or more for the Penguins. Martin had just returned January 20 from a fractured tibia that sidelined him for nearly two months.

“That’s going to be tough on our team,” Neal said. “We’ve lost Paulie enough this year to injuries; the guy can’t catch a break and he’s had some bad luck. He’s such a huge part of our team; when he’s playing, he’s one of the best back there. Hopefully we can get him back as soon as possible.”

“Losing Paulie’s a big loss,” Niskanen said. “He was playing well over in Sochi, [and] he was just getting his game back right before he left, so that’s an unlucky break for him and our team. But, for myself and the other [defensemen], it’s kind of a common theme this season – increased role, increased minutes. That’s something that we’re pretty used to, unfortunately, right now.”

Martin joins fellow top-four defenseman Kris Letang on the shelf. After missing a significant portion of the season with a variety of ailments, the 26-year-old Letang is now not expected to return this year after suffering a stroke, likely due to a hole in his heart.

“It’s unusual to have that many regulars out all at once, several times through the year now,” Niskanen said. “Our depth has been tested, lots of different guys have played and we’ve done pretty well, too, so that’s a good sign that we have a number of people who can step in and be productive players.

“That’s a good thing for our organization and an exciting opportunity for the young players, too. That’s kind of what you need to get a chance, especially in a good organization.”

Not in the medal-round conversation at all was Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, whose Team Russia was knocked out by the Finns in the first elimination game. The loss was a devastating one for the Russians, who hoped to medal in their home Olympics.

“[The U.S. and Russia] probably thought their teams could potentially get a medal, possibly even gold, so that’s disappointing, I’m sure,” Niskanen said. “Geno, especially, had a lot of pressure playing in his home country.

“But when they get back, they’re grown men and I think they’re going to see that there’s another big prize in the not-too-distant future. They’ll be focused on that and they’ll be hungry to have success here in Pittsburgh.”

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EA Sports NHL 14 Olympic Breakdown Tue, 18 Feb 2014 18:49:51 +0000

The Olympic break is here. Rosters are updated. And the hottest buzz in NHL 14 is to represent your nation in online play- giving yourself a chance to be a hero — a chance to have your own Oshie moment.

With storylines abundant as the elimination round arrives — such as the U.S.’s domination or Canada’s less-than-stellar play — the international online game has only gained steam. While the Canada-USA matchup reigns supreme, Russia and Sweden are two other hot choices as NHL online play picks up.

EA sports released a fascinating infographic breaking down each Olympic team in a variety of categories.

Canada’s Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby lead all Sochi representatives with 4.3 and 3.5 million in-game goals respectively.

Russia’s Pavel Datsyuk is third with three million, followed by Chicago Blackhawks teammates Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane who are tied at 2.7 million in-game goals apiece.

The winningest Sochi goaltender is Canada’s Roberto Luongo with 4.1 million victories. Carey Price is second on the list with 1.5 million, followed by Jimmy Howard and Tuukka Rask.

In terms of the salary cap, Canada, as expected, leads the way by more than $30 million with a $150.9 cap hit. The U.S. is second with a $119.8 million cap hit.

Team Finland boasts the most players who have won Olympic medals with 14.

Take a look here to see who rounds out the leading NHL 14 Sochi representatives:




The top two seeds as we head to elimination play, Sweden and the U.S., have been the most impressive teams thus far in Sochi. That being said, the tournament is wide open, as Canada could certainly fix their Chemistry “issues”, and Russia’s elite goal-scoring talent is always a threat; even Switzerland with their high-speed tempo and superb goaltending by Jonas Hiller could make some noise.  And then, there are the Finns.

The tournament has been a hockey fan’s dream thus far and will only get better. Be sure to make your own Olympic history with NHL 14’s online play- this could be your last chance, with NHL players, that is.

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Predicting the Winter Olympic Hockey Standings Fri, 07 Feb 2014 14:05:09 +0000

By Jason Karnosky,

Sochi 2014 hockey

At some point, we’ll stop reading about stray dogs accepting kickbacks while sitting on tandem toilets in Sochi, Russia. That’s what’s going on at the Winter Olympics, right?

Whenever that point comes, we’ll be able to watch the best hockey players in the world competing for gold medals on an unusually large (by North American standards) sheet of ice. Team-by-team, here’s how the entrants stack up:

The Possible Gold Medalists

1. Canada

2010 finish: Gold

2014 prediction: Bronze medal

Pool grouping: B (Canada, Finland, Norway, Austria)

Other than in goal, Canada enters the 2014 Olympics as the strongest team in the world. Up front the defending Gold Medalists feature a dynamic blend of skill and toughness, highlighted by the best player in the world, captain Sidney Crosby. Sid the Kid will be joined by his regular wingman Chris Kunitz, Anaheim’s duel threat of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Chicago sparkplugs Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, and two-way demons Patrice Bergeron and Rick Nash.

On defense, Canada lacks the leadership it featured in prior years, but it’s hard to deny the abilities of Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo and PK Subban, all capable of taking over games. The only issue here is the sheer depth of available talent for coach Mike Babcock, who will have some tough lineup choices.

The obvious question mark for Canada and Babcock is deciding which goalie gets top billing. Gone are the likes of legends Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy, while 2010’s hero Roberto Luongo is now 34 and moving past his prime. The Red and White hopes for repeat might rely on whether newcomer Carey Price can live up to his lofty potential in Sochi.

2. Sweden

2010 finish: Fifth

2014 prediction: Gold medal

Pool grouping: C (Sweden, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Latvia)

Thanks to Canada’s poor track record in Olympics not played in North America, the 2006 gold medalist Sweden heads to Russia as the favorite to win the gold again. Russia, Canada and the United States will get the most publicity as the likely medalists, but it’s easy to argue that Sweden is the most balanced team in the world.

Offensively the blue and gold pack all sorts of punch in forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Steen, and down a long list combining skill, speed and toughness. Even without longtime stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom, the Swedes’ blueline will be stacked with shutdown defenders in Nicklas Kronwall and Niklas Hjalmarsson, plus two-way threats like Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

Like most of the contenders, Sweden will only go as far as its goaltending will allow. King Henrik Lundqvist has yet to be his normal dominant self this season, but he is the best goalie in the world when on his game — and he probably will be in Sochi.

3. United States

2010 finish: Silver

2014 prediction: Silver medal

Pool grouping: A (United States, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia)

Though the United States will arrive in Russia with slightly less firepower than their counterparts up north, the U.S. (along with Finland) should feature the best goaltending at the Winter Olympics. Determined Jonathan Quick is as good a big-game goalie as there is in the world, while Ryan Miller was clear-cut the tournament MVP in 2010. In case something happens to either of them, Jimmy Howard isn’t a bad third option.

Offensively, the Americans are surprisingly dangerous, considering its scoring threats like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise and Joe Pavelski. Perhaps more importantly, Team USA can drive puck-handlers crazy with shutdown two-way stars like Ryan Kesler, David Backes and Dustin Brown — all tenacious checkers.

On the blueline, the red, white and blue features one of the NHL’s best in Ryan Suter, plus some young explosive transition defenders like Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk. On paper this is the United States’ best team ever and certainly its biggest threat since Lake Placid to win a gold medal.

4. Russia

2010 finish: Sixth

2014 prediction: Fourth

Pool grouping: A (Russia, Slovakia, United States, Slovenia)

It’s been a long time since Russia has mattered in the final outcome of the Olympic hockey tournament — far too long for the natives, including president Vladimir Putin — and the Russians are still reeling over the 7-3 throttling they received at the hands of Canada in 2010.

Offensively, no team features more firepower of the Russians. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk are arguably the four most talented players in the world not named Crosby. Behind them, the Russians have a pair of emerging elite goaltenders in Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov that have been coming into their own in the NHL the past few years.

But Russia proves weak in defense and team chemistry. The hosts will not feature a single bona fide, number-one defender, and only one solid number two in the aging Andrei Markov. Fedor Tyutin and Slava Voynov are both quality players. After those three, the talent level drops off fast. Meanwhile the Russian roster is a half-and-half blend of KHL and NHL talent that might not jell in time for the medal round. Despite featuring the tournament’s best offense, I expect the “other” Red, White and Blue to disappoint again.

5. Finland

2010 finish: Bronze

2014 prediction: Fifth

Pool grouping: B (Finland, Canada, Norway, Austria)

Never considered flashy in previous years, Team Finland’s 2014 edition has the potential to beat any team in the tournament defensively and offensively. In goal, only the Americans can rival Finland’s depth or skill, with three great options in Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. The nation’s best goalie, Pekka Rinne, didn’t even make the roster due to injury troubles.

Up front, ageless wonder Teemu Selanne provides impeccable leadership, while the team’s scoring threats include Mikko Koivu, Jussi and Olli Jokinen, and the underrated Valtteri Filppula.

Finland’s one vulnerable spot is its defense. Talented veterans Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen are past their primes, while promising youngsters Sami Vatanen and Olli Maatta are a bit raw. Because of its superb goaltending, Finland will be in every game and big threat to medal again in Sochi.

6. Slovakia

2010 finish: Fourth

2014 prediction: Seventh

Pool grouping: A (Slovakia, Russia, United States, Slovenia)

Slovakia just out missed on having a huge Olympics in 2010, when it knocked out defending champion Sweden during the medal round and pushed Canada to the brink before falling in the semifinals. The Slovaks will again be anchored by stalwart defenseman Zdeno Chara and superstar forward Marian Hossa, and the two veterans will play alongside a solid core of talent.

Up front, lesser-known names like Tomas Tatar, Marcel Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and often-injured Marian Gaborik represent underrated offensive talent. On defense, Andrej Meszaros, Andrej Sekera, and Lubomir Visnovsky are all capable of big efforts in a short tournament.

Slovakia’s most underrated asset is goaltending. In Jaroslav Halak, Slovakia has a netminder it can ride into a medal position for the first time.

7. Czech Republic

2010 finish: Seventh

2014 medal prediction: Eighth

Pool grouping: C (Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Latvia)

Despite its impressive talent pool, something seems off among the aging Czechs going to the Olympics. Three of the top forwards are Petr Nedved (42), Jaromir Jagr (turning 42 during the Games) and Patrik Elias (37). Three of the nation’s best talents — Jiri Hudler, Tomas Fleischmann and Radim Vrbata — were all left off the squad. It’s still a strong group, featuring skilled players in their prime like David Krejci, Tomas Plekanec, Milan Michalek and Martin Hanzal.

Roman Polak, Jan Hejda and Jakub Kindl — three quality NHL blueliners — were also left off the roster. In their place are some good options like Marek Zidlicky, Michal Rozsival and Zbynek Michalek, but this will not be the Czech’s strength.

Neither will goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec and KHL goalie Alexander Salak will be vying for the starts. Both fail to inspire the confidence the Czech Republic has enjoyed in previous Olympic tournaments.

8. Switzerland

2010 finish: Eighth

2014 prediction: Sixth

Pool grouping: C (Switzerland, Czech Republic, Sweden, Latvia)

Switzerland has been emerging on the world stage the past few years, but failed to take its rightful place among the elite following a silver-medal finish at the 2013 World Championships. Though Switzerland will hardly scare anyone offensively beyond maybe Damien Brunner and Nino Niederreiter, the Alpine nation has an ultimate trump card: Jonas Hiller, who ranks among the NHL’s best goaltenders this season. He’s having a career year in Anaheim.

Hiller will get plenty of help from a blueline that’s considered a notch below the world’s elite. Captain Mark Streit leads the way, along with skilled youngsters Roman Josi, Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz.

I fully expect this to be the year that Switzerland asserts itself at the Winter Olympics and takes its place among the world’s best. That might require a big performance from Hiller and a lot of low-scoring, tight wins.

The rest of the world

9. Latvia

2010 finish: 12th

2014 prediction: Ninth

Pool grouping: C (Latvia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland)

The Latvians are always an underrated hockey nation who could prosper this year behind Buffalo Sabres head coach Ted Nolan. Much of the roster competes in the KHL and can skate well, meaning they will give any opponent a good test. A couple of names to keep an eye on for Latvia, whose best Olympic finish was ninth in 2002: 41-year-old defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who played 16 years and 875 games in the NHL, and forward Kaspars Daugavins. Daugavins recently played for the Boston Bruins dressed for five Stanley Cup finals contests during the 2013 playoffs. Meanwhile, the young Zemgus Girgensons is a player to watch in the future with the Buffalo Sabres. All Latvia has to do now is get a big win over the world’s elite. With a strong contingent of fans in Sochi, this might be the year they do it.

10. Austria

2010 finish: N/A

2014 prediction: 11th

Pool grouping: B (Austria, Finland, Canada, Norway)

Like its Alpine neighbor Switzerland, Austria represents an improving country on the world hockey stage. One of the NHL’s most dangerous players, Thomas Vanek, will lead this club offensively, joined by perhaps the league’s fastest player in Michael Grabner. Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl is lesser known but should be effective in Sochi. Austria could surprise with a decent showing in Sochi.

11. Norway

2010 finish: 10th

2014 prediction: 10th

Pool grouping: B (Norway, Finland, Canada, Austria)

Not much was expected of Norway in the 2010 Olympics, considering it failed to qualify for the games between 1998 and 2006. Then the Norwegians lost in overtime to heavily favored Switzerland before nearly upsetting Slovakia — the game was tied 3-3 heading into the third period. The big names to watch are the pint-sized New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, the talented Patrick Thoresen and defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.

12. Slovenia

2010 finish: N/A

2014 prediction: 12th

Pool grouping: A (Slovenia, Russia, Slovakia, United States)

The least known squad going to Russia, Slovenia is rarely thought of as a hockey playing nation. Yet this first-time Olympic participant features one of the NHL’s top talents in forward Anze Kopitar, whose father Matjaz will be coaching the squad. Former Detroit Red Wings forward Jan Mursak is another strong player. Considering the diverse backgrounds of the Slovenian players, just competing in Sochi will be a huge accomplishment.

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Five Olympic Tournament MVP Candidates Wed, 05 Feb 2014 12:36:56 +0000

By Jason Karnosky,

Ryan Kesler

Ryan Kesler was at his best at the 2010 Winter Olympics playing for Team USA | Photo by Dan Hickling,

Ever since the Winter Olympics featured NHL players for its 1998 edition, four men, including three goaltenders, have taken home the honor as the tournament’s best player:

1998 (Nagano, Japan): Dominik Hasek, Czech Republic
2002 (Salt Lake City): Joe Sakic, Canada
2006 (Turin, Italy): Antero Niittymaki, Finland
2010 (Vancouver): Ryan Miller, United States

Who will be top player in Sochi, carrying his team to glory? Here are five names to keep an eye on:

1. Henrik Zetterberg, Sweden

Considering the previous players to carry the captaincy for Team Sweden are Nicklas Lidstrom and Mats Sundin, Henrik Zetterberg has some big skates to fill in Sochi. The 33-year-old Detroit Red Wings star will arrive in Russia equipped with the makeup to handle the pressure for a hockey-devoted nation that has won just one medal (Gold in 2006) since the NHL floodgates opened.

This season Zetterberg has been carrying the injury-depleted Red Wings, leading Detroit in goals (16), assists (28), points (44) and plus/minus (plus-19). In last year’s playoffs the former seventh-round pick (another Red Wings diamond in the rough) found another gear, almost completely shutting down stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Detroit’s near upset of the heavily-favored Blackhawks. He’ll likely play a similar role to free up offensive space for his skilled Swedish teammates. Zetterberg should be menacing on both ends in Sochi.

2. Sidney Crosby, Canada

Sidney Crosby will arrive in Sochi under the same glare of the spotlight that he’s endured his whole career. To date that intense media focus has been well earned as the world’s greatest hockey player’s accomplishments have been nothing short of stunning: Stanley Cup Champion (2010), NHL MVP (2007 and likely in 2014), NHL scoring champion (2007) and goal scoring champion (2010). He’s also 26 years old, and may just be getting started. But the most famous moment so far in Crosby’s career came back in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics, when he scored the gold medal winning goal in overtime against Team USA.

Freshly minted as Team Canada’s captain, the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native will try to lead his native land to something the hockey-crazed nation hasn’t done in over 60 years: win a gold medal outside North America. The 26-year-old is poised for his biggest performance yet, as he leads the NHL in assists (48), points (75) and will likely be playing aside his favorite Penguins wingman Chris Kunitz on Canada’s top line (and potentially fellow sniper Steven Stamkos). Fans of the Maple Leaf are hoping that this dynamic duo will be even more dominant in Russia.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Russia

On a Russian squad full of stars, Evgeni Malkin might represent the team’s most complete player. An exceptional skater, shooter and puck possessor, the 27-year-old is also 6-foot-3 and physically strong. Considering that Malkin plays on the same Pittsburgh team as Crosby, it’s easy to forget that he, not Sid the Kid, won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP during the Penguins’ 2010 Stanley Cup march. Malkin also has a Hart Trophy in his case from his incredible, 50-goal, 109-point 2011-2012 season.

The Magnitogorsk native thrives in big games. As languages go, he’s certainly more comfortable in his native Russian. Therefore, as the pressure mounts on Malkin’s Team Russia teammates like Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, expect the power forward to feel right in his element in Sochi. Malkin will likely will slot on the team’s second line and be a brutally tough matchup for opponents trying to key on either him or Pavel Datsyuk.

4. Ryan Kesler, United States

Somewhat lost in the heroics of Ryan Miller and the American defense was Ryan Kesler’s performance at the 2010 Games. The prideful Livonia, Michigan native was a two-way stalwart competing in his NHL team’s home building, driving opponents crazy with his tight-checking game, while combining that with great offensive efforts on the other end. That’s exactly the kind of player Kesler has been this season with the Canucks. He’s got 18 goals and 33 points in 57 games with Vancouver, and leads the Canucks’ forwards in time on ice (22:13), a testament to his value in all game situations.

It’s been a remarkable comeback story for the 29-year-old, who after an incredible Stanley Cup playoff run in the spring of 2011 saw his career fall off an injury-riddled cliff. After posting 41 goals and 73 points in 2010-2011, Kesler slipped to just 22 and 49 in the following season. In the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 campaign, the 6-2 forward managed to dress for just 17 games. Healthy again, Kesler should be a force in Russia.

5. Antti Niemi, Finland

In a nation loaded with great goaltenders, the San Jose Sharks’ star might not even be Team Finland’s starter in Sochi (Tuukka Rask of Boston could get top billing). When it comes to big game goaltenders in the NHL, few are better than the 30-year-old Vantaa native. He won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2009 and has posted 120 wins and 18 shutouts over the past four seasons with the Sharks. In last year’s playoffs Niemi was nearly unbeatable, going 7-4-0 while allowing just 21 goals in 11 postseason contests (1.87 goals against average, .930 save percentage) as San Jose narrowly missed out a deep run.

Like Rask, Niemi has yet to take center stage in the Olympics. Both talented netminders will likely get at least one start in Sochi. Though the battle for Team Finland’s net should be intense, I expect the slightly older and more experienced Niemi to get the nod as he tries to carry Finland to a place the Scandinavian nation has yet to reach: The top of Olympic hockey medal podium.

Five more potential tournament standouts:

Jaroslav Halak, Slovakia; Shea Weber, Canada; Jonathan Quick, United States; David Krejci, Czech Republic; Jonas Hiller, Switzerland

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Five First-Time Olympians Poised to Break Out Mon, 03 Feb 2014 13:35:50 +0000

By Jason Karnosky,

Matt Duchene

Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene will be competing at his first Olympics for Team Canada. | Photo by Dan Hickling for

In the spring of 1998, Dominik Hasek was 33 years old. He’d never won a playoff series in his career, almost all of which was spent playing for the small-market Buffalo Sabres.

Hasek wasn’t an overnight star at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, but he was close. When Hasek led the Czech Republic to the gold medal, he went from a recognizable NHL player to the best at his position in the world.

Who will be this year’s Hasek? Here are five possibilities.

1. Matt Duchene, Canada

With young forwards Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon all blossoming this season, there is a reason why the Colorado Avalanche are National Hockey League’s surprise team. Duchene leads the three future stars, and all Avs, with 27 assists and 44 points. Those efforts led to a surprising Canadian Olympic team selection over the likes of Claude Giroux, Martin St. Louis, James Neal and others.

The maturation of this recently turned 23-year-old has been impressive to watch. For Team Canada, Duchene will likely fit onto a lower-line role, and will be expected to play a strong two-way game while showing off his great skating ability. On a team full of big-name stars and better-known talents, I expect the Haliburton native to be one of the tournament’s big surprises.

2. Roman Josi, Switzerland

When watching third-year Nashville defenseman Roman Josi play, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 23. The Bern native is one of the NHL’s best-kept secrets, and fast becoming a superb transition blueliner who can take over a game with his puck skills. Josi has six goals and 22 points in 44 games this year. Already, he fits in nicely on the Predators’ emerging young defense alongside Shea Weber and Seth Jones.

On the international stage, Josi has already stepped to the forefront in 2013 after leading Switzerland to his country’s first silver medal at the World Championships since 1935. Josi took home tournament MVP honors while leading all Swiss players with nine points. He was also named the tournament’s best defenseman. In Sochi, a larger audience will see first-hand the evolution of this talented defender as he helps Switzerland contend for a medal.

3. Cam Fowler, United States

When the U.S. unveiled its 2014 Olympic roster, one of the biggest surprises was the selection of Fowler over Team USA veterans Jack Johnson and Keith Yandle. The 22-year-old has done nothing but amaze in his fourth NHL season with Anaheim. On the league’s best team, Fowler is fifth in scoring with 29 points, while posting an impressive plus-12 rating. Put in perspective, the Northville, Michigan native struggled to a minus-28 rating in 2011-12.

Now heading to Sochi, Fowler will be expected to take all that he’s learned from mentor Scott Niedermayer and provide a youthful spark on an American squad quickly maturing into a perennial gold-medal contender. Likely to slot just behind cornerstone blueliner Ryan Suter, the smooth skating Fowler should be a player to watch on the big ice in Russia.

4. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Sweden

Joining perhaps the best blue line in the world heading to Sochi, it’s easy to overlook Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Yet this 22-year-old has already emerged as the go-to blue liner on the Phoenix Coyotes and a player well worth paying to see every night with his dynamic two-way game.

Under the guidance of Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, Ekman-Larsson is strong and effective in his own end. He’s among the top 60 NHL defenseman in hits, one of few offensive stalwarts on the list. He’s also posted a positive rating in each of his first four NHL seasons. Meanwhile, Ekman-Larsson is an effective transition scoring defender, capable of contributing offensively night after night (26 points through 50 games). In Sochi, look for the Karlskrona native to play a significant role for the always-dangerous Swedes.

5. Vladimir Tarasenko, Russia

On a St. Louis Blues team not known for its elite skill up front, Vladimir Tarasenko is emerging as his team’s game-breaker. In his past 13 games Tarasenko has 14 points, upping his season total to 17 goals and 31 points. Perhaps most impressive for the 22-year-old: A plus-12 rating, representing just how much Tarasenko’s overall game is maturing under the guidance of Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.

An always explosive player who loves to shoot, the Yaroslavl native might get lost on Team Russia as opponents try to match their best defenders against Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuck. This means Tarasenko might find some unusual skating room to shine and become a well-known face on the home favorite Russians.

Five more poised to step out on the international stage: Gabriel Landeskog, Sweden; Olli Maatta, Finland; Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia; Tomas Tatar, Slovakia; Valeri Nichushkin, Russia.

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Sharks Braun Snubbed by Team USA Sun, 05 Jan 2014 00:22:06 +0000

Photo credit: Dinur Blum

SAN JOSE- As anyone who has watched a dozen Sharks games this season knows, Minnesota native Justin Braun is having an incredible year on the blue-line. The 26-year-old defenseman goes up against the opponents best forwards night after night and yet has still managed to turn in a plus-17 rating through the first half of the season.

Now of course plus/minus has it’s problems as a statistic, but there is no one stat that tells the whole story.

However, when you combine Braun’s +17 (currently +18), with the fact he faces the best forwards the opposing team has to offer and is still amongst the league leaders in terms of corsi statistics, you have one hell of a player.

For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of corsi, the idea is rather simple. You add up all the shots taken for a players team while he is on the ice and subtract the total of shots taken by the other team.

For example, if the Sharks attempt 20 shots during a game while Braun is on the ice and their opponents only attempt 10, Braun’s corsi for the game would be 10.

Unfortunately, there are too many different variations of these advanced statistics. Even yours truly has some difficulty keeping track. Therefore, don’t worry about the raw numbers of these new era stats.

The point to be had about corsi is that no matter how you measure it, Justin Braun ranks amongst the league leaders.

For reference purposes, names of other defenseman near Braun in the various corsi ratings are names like Dan Boyle, Kevin Shattenkirk and Zdeno Chara.

Cam Fowler on the other hand, who did make the Team USA squad, sees his corsi numbers in the mix with names like Brenden Dillon, Peter Harrold, Marc Methot, and Matt Carkner.

And it’s not as if Fowler plays for a bad team, he plays for the Pacific division leading Ducks.

Again, no statistic is perfect. This is why scouts have their jobs and the decisions for these Olympic teams are always so tough.

But this season, Braun has developed into one of the best two-way defenseman in the league. He is tremendous on the breakout, loves to jump into the play late and even lead rushes up the ice. Defensively, he has been playing as good as anybody in shutting down top tier forwards night in and night out.

There are very few defenseman in the league right now that are tougher to play against than Braun. He battles for every inch of space and even at just  6’2″ 205, he rarely, if ever gets out-muscled. Combine his ability to more than hold his own in the corners against bigger forwards, with his tremendous skating and puck moving abilities, he ought to have been a slam dunk for Team USA.

He may only have 11 points on the season in 40 games, but 10 have come five-on-five. If it weren’t for Dan Boyle ahead of him on the power-play depth chart, Braun could very easily be a 15-20 point defenseman at this stage of the season.

There is not one significant weakness in Braun’s game right now, he’s simply been doing everything you could possibly want in a defenseman this season. And you would be hard pressed to find anyone saying the same thing about a handful of the American defenseman that were named to the roster ahead of him.

Fowler, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Justin Faulk all of whom have been selected to represent Team USA all have some drawbacks in their overall games.

There is simply no argument to be had for not taking Justin Braun on Team USA. If you watch the film of No. 61 for the Sharks, there isn’t a single area of the game that he doesn’t excel at.


As always, for more on the Sharks follow Andrew on twitter: @ViewFromBensch

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Making Sochi Squad ‘Dream Come True’ for Carlson Thu, 02 Jan 2014 02:50:44 +0000

“It’s a dream come true,” John Carlson said of his selection to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team.

Watching the Winter Classic at home with his girlfriend, Carlson, who said the Olympics had been in the back of his mind for months, found out he made the team the same way fans across the country did – when the youth player wearing his Team USA sweater turned his back to the NBC cameras.

While not surprising, Carlson’s selection is historic, as he becomes the first Washington Capital selected to represent the United States in an Olympics. In Sochi, he will join Washington Captain Alex Ovechkin, who will represent Russia and was recently effusive when talking about Carlson and his chances of making the Olympic squad.

Carlson is one of eight defensemen the U.S. is taking to Sochi next month. It is a notably youthful group with Carlson, who turns 24 on January 10, joining Cam Fowler, 22, Justin Faulk, 21, Ryan McDonagh, 24, and Kevin Shattenkirk, 24, as first-time Olympians. Only Brooks Orpik, 33, and Ryan Suter, who will be 29 by the time the Games start, participated in an Olympics before. Paul Martin, 32, made the taxi squad for the 2006 games but did not play.

“I think we’ve got a great team,” Carlson said, noting that speed is clearly a strength of the American squad. “I think that’s important on the big surface. I think skating is going to be important.”

The selections made by USA Hockey officials are already garnering some criticism. The most glaring exclusion on the blue line is mobile veteran Keith Yandle. But the inclusion of Carlson, who averages almost 25 minutes of ice time per game and has upended Mike Green as the Capitals top defenseman, is a no-brainer that shocked no one.

“For me, I think I always knew that I had a great shot to make the team,” Carlson said. “But I don’t make those decisions. You never know.”

Carlson said following the announcement he spoke briefly with Team USA Associate General Manager Ray Shero, who congratulated him.

While Shero is the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and joins coaches Dan Bylsma and Tony Granato and players Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin as members of the Penguins organization on the U.S. Olympic team, Carlson dismissed any notion that he would have trouble finding chemistry with a team composed of NHL rivals. He said there is not one member of Team USA that he dislikes.

Carlson will draw on his previous international experience as a member of the gold-medal winning team in the 2010 World Junior Championships when he is in Sochi. He said the World Junior Championships were a “mini version of the Olympics.”

As far as adjusting to the bigger ice surface, Carlson noted that, as a defenseman, he has to be aware of his positioning. He also said that Washington teammate and Czech Republic native Martin Erat has actually been giving him pointers.

The U.S. Men open tournament play against Slovakia on February 13.

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Is Justin Braun the Sharks No. 1 Defenseman? Sun, 22 Dec 2013 17:47:03 +0000

(photo by Dinur Blum)

SAN JOSE- Generally speaking, the defender who logs the most minutes for his club is considered their “No. 1″ defenseman.

In that case, so far this season, Justin Braun, not Dan Boyle nor Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is San Jose’s No. 1 defender.

The 26-year-old Minnesota native leads all Sharks skaters with an average 21:42 in TOI, a full 36 seconds more per game than Boyle and 51 seconds more than Vlasic.

Remember, Boyle is a two-time All Star who owns a Stanley Cup ring with the Tampa Bay Lightning and a Gold Medal with Team Canada. Vlasic has been in the NHL since he was 19, and is getting major attention to play for Canada in the upcoming Olympics in Sochi.

Meanwhile Braun, who was a 6th/7th defenseman that was in and out of the lineup as recently as 10 months ago, has added his name into that elite category.

Paired most of this season alongside Vlasic, Braun has arguably fared even better when apart from his regular partner. His plus-16 rating is currently 15th best in the league and eighth best amongst NHL defensemen. Vlasic on other hand comes in at a plus-12.

Considering his rather humble beginnings as a 7th round pick in 2007 and his limited power play minutes, Braun is certainly not a house hold name.

Come February however, there’s a good chance that will change. At this point in time, it would be an absolute travesty if Braun doesn’t make the Olympic roster for Team USA. In fact, with the season he is having, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him paired at the Olympics with the Wild’s Ryan Suter (AKA the best American defenseman in the game today).

While Braun only has 11 points through 37 games this year, all but one of them have come at even strength and more importantly he has a knack for leading strong breakouts.

When hockey is broken down into it’s core, it’s primarily about breaking out of the defensive zone and winning 50-50 battles. Braun particularly excels in both these areas. He never gives up on a loose puck and he always seems to be moving his feet. Sharks forwards are fortunate to have him on the ice while breaking out of the defensive zone. When the forwards are covered, Braun is almost always in the right spot as the weak-side (side of the ice without the puck) support jumping up into the play.

“He skates so well” commented Sharks captain Joe Thornton on Braun. “You see his confidence [out there]  and he just seems to be getting better every game and he’s really fun to watch right now.”

Thornton took the words right out of my mouth, Braun is indeed quite fun to watch right now.  I recommend all hockey fans spend at least one period watching nothing but the Sharks number 61. You’ll come away impressed and entertained.

As always, for more on the Sharks follow Andrew on twitter: @ViewFromBensch

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Tribute to a Friend Gone Too Soon Thu, 05 Dec 2013 14:39:32 +0000


Hardly a week would go by without Rebecca Stryker regaling me with tales of her family’s travels with her twin hockey playing sons, defenseman/forward Travis and goaltender Austin. The students at Allen (Texas) High School pursued their love of the sport and represented north Texas and their elite U-16 AA Dallas Junior Hockey Association (DJHA) Penguins by participating in numerous youth hockey tournaments nationally against very talented competition.

She absolutely loved to recall how well her sons in particular and their team in general had competed, as well as the laughs and stories that highlighted each of those trips. Prior to Thanksgiving, she told me about the approaching 2013 Silver Stick Regional in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her pre-tournament primer fed our mutual love of hockey, particularly at the youth level.

Unfortunately, our friend Rebecca is – to borrow from vocalist Usher Raymond’s lyrics at Michael Jackson’s memorial – Gone Too Soon. The 60-year old educator, wife and mother of three children was killed along with her husband James, 56, and son Travis in a head on collision in northern Arizona November 26. Austin survived the crash, and Stephanie, a junior at Texas A&M University, was not on the trip. The Dallas Junior Hockey Association has established a fund to support the family’s surviving children. All proceeds will go to Austin and Stephanie to cover costs related to the accident, and to their future needs.

That this accident occurred en route to the hockey tournament in Nevada is tragically ironic. Rebecca and James were deeply involved in the Penguins organization for the benefit not only of their own children, but for their teammates as well. They worked diligently, setting up and administering fund raising events, as well as shuttling the twins to their practices and games.

Needless to say, the news of their deaths slammed into each of her teaching colleagues – as well as the youth hockey community — with the force of a puck travelling at upwards of 110-mph. The Dallas Stars offered a classy tribute to the family, and a moment of silence prior to their Nov. 29 game against Chicago at American Airlines Center in Dallas.

As teachers of at risk students in the McKinney Independent School District, Rebecca and each of us as educators shared another common bond — our commitment to help our students overcome life’s trials and tribulations in the hope of preparing for a brighter future.

I was always truly amazed at the tireless devotion that Rebecca showed to her family, and to her students. Teaching at risk youths is far different than educating students on a regular campus. To be successful – and we all have our share of success stories in this arena — one must possess a healthy dose of patience and a hair trigger sense of humor.

I will never forget the artful way that Rebecca taught one class how to make ice cream as part of her science curriculum. When one of the students accidentally spilled some of the ingredients, Rebecca quickly directed the clean-up with her trademark smile and a chuckle. She was one of the most joyful people I have ever had the pleasure of being around, and will be missed by her teaching colleagues, administrators and staff members.

Fortunately, the stories and memories of this amazing woman will somehow enlighten our spirits, and keep her in our hearts.

I am told that some parents of the Stryker twins’ Penguin teammates made their way to the crash site upon hearing of the mishap to lend any support they could provide.

The Penguins team soldiered on, just as hockey players always do. Skating with heavy hearts and praying for Austin’s quick recovery, the U-16 AA squad captured the tournament championship. They won four of their five games, including two victories over the Valencia Flyers, 9-4 and 6-2, and defeated the Atlanta Phoenix, 12-1, and the Portland Jr. Hawks, 2-0. As a result, they have qualified for the Silver Stick International Tournament in Newmarket, Ontario (Canada) this January, where they will compete against the best teams from the United States and Canada.

I don’t know whether Austin will be back with the team, but I will be following the Pens’ progress online.

And I sure would love to have heard about her twins’ achievements and the team’s efforts from my teaching colleague, Rebecca Stryker.

Rest in peace, Rebecca. We love you dearly, and we miss you!

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Photo Gallery: USA Mens Hockey Orientation Camp 2013 Wed, 28 Aug 2013 13:39:11 +0000

The top 48 US Mens hockey players met at Kettler Ice Rink, the practice facility of the Washington Capitals, for orientation for this year’s Winter Olympics. The squad was young — the oldest Ryan Miller at 33. In fact, no invitee was alive when the USA beat the Soviet Union for the gold in 1980. While there were no on-ice practices, John Carlson, Jack Johnson, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Ryan Suter skated with USA U8, U10 and U12 local hockey players.

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