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Olympic Hockey: Canada, USA Battle For Gold

February 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The Matchup: Team USA (5-0-0-0) faces off against Team Canada (4-1-1-0). This is the second meeting between the two teams in the Olympic tournament.

The Last Team USA Game: The U.S. scored six goals in the opening 12:46 to defeat Finland, 6-1, in their semifinal matchup Friday afternoon. Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) scored two goals, and Zach Parise (New Jersey Devils) added a goal in the victory. Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) finished with 18 saves before being replaced at 8:49 in the third period.

The Last Team Canada Game: Team Canada scored three early goals and held on to defeat TeamSlovakia, 3-2, in their semifinal matchup Friday night. Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks), Brenden Morrow (Dallas Stars) and Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks) all scored for Canada. Roberto Luongo (Vancouver Canucks) finished with 19 saves.

The Last Team USA – Team Canada Game: Team USA and Team Canada squared off in their final round robin game before the elimination rounds last Sunday. It was a back and forth affair until Chris Drury (New York Rangers) scored a goal at 16:46 of the second period. Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey Devils) scored the game winner with a powerplay goal at 7:09 of the third period. Miller finished with 42 saves in the win.

Today’s Matchup: When these teams last met, Team Canada was able to constantly attack Team USA’s defense. It seemed as if the Canadian’s spent most of the game in Team USA’s zone. Miller had to be phenomenal, and it was his effort that kept the Americans in the game. Without Miller’s play, the US wouldn’t have survived that game. The Americans were also aided by Martin Brodeur (New Jersey Devils), who didn’t play his greatest game.

But now the team takes on a different beast. By changing a few lines and putting in Luongo, Canada seems to have found their stride. Both teams are playing the underdog card, but the Americans are still overmatched. In this battle of all-star lineups, Canada seems to have better chemistry with their lines. But you can never bet against a hot goaltender and a confident, brash young team. This will, once again, be a dogfight until the end. But I can see both teams hoisting gold medals after the final buzzer.

The game will be on NBC at 3:15 p.m.

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Will Ilya Kovalchuk Leave The NHL For Russia?

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

While checking up on my daily NHL reading, I came across this story on Bergen Record reporter Tom Gulitti’s blog: KHL President Says SKA Petersburgh Will Beat Any NHL Offer To Devils Left Wing Ilya Kovalchuk. Seeing this, I clearly had to read further. And, with what I’ve read, it seems as if the Devils will have some serious competition in re-signing the superstar winger.

When the Devils acquired Kovalchuk on February 4, they decided to not extend the winger’s contract. As a result, Kovalchuk can become a free agent July 1. Depending on what the NHL salary cap will be for 2010-2011, the maximum amount of money Kovalchuk could earn per season would be $11 million dollars. SKA Petersburgh, a member of the Kontinental Hockey League, believes they can top that.

KHL president Alexander Medvedev told THN.com and ESPN.com that the tax structure in Russia for Russian citizens allows Kovalchuk to be offered more money. Here’s a quote from Medvedev:

“The difference between 45 percent taxes and 13 percent taxes is substantial,” Medvedev told THN.com and ESPN.com. “We could top that (NHL) money he would receive by a substantial sum. He will decide. We are going to negotiate with him and his agents what kind of agreement could be reached.”

And Medvedev isn’t just shooting from the hip. SKA Petersburgh is sponsored by the Gazprom Company, where Medvedev is deputy chairman. He clearly is someone with knowledge of the situation.

This isn’t the first time the KHL caused a stir. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman constantly complains that the Russian league poaches NHL players from the league to play in Russia. The KHL levels the same accusations against the NHL. But this would be the first time a superstar player spurned the NHL for a chance to play in Russia.

Nothing is set in stone or definite, but it will be interesting to see if the KHL really does pursue Kovalchuk this offseason.

Devils At The Break: Ilya Kovalchuk Comes To Town

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In the fourth installment of “Devils At The Break,” I’ll take a look at the trade for left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk. The trade, one of the most aggressive by general manager Lou Lamoriello in his tenure, hasn’t had immediate benefits. But the trade served its purpose – to spark the team and add a potentially dangerous weapon.

The Atlanta Thrashers desperately tried to keep their superstar winger in their uniform. Atlanta general manager Don Waddell didn’t want to trade the team’s captain, who scored 328 goals since being drafted in 2001. The Thrashers, an expansion team in 1999-2000, couldn’t find sustained success, only making one playoff appearance. Kovalchuk balked at a 12 year, $101 million dollar extension, and the race for Kovalchuk was on.

On February 4, the trade between the Devils and Thrashers was announced. The Thrashers agreed to trade Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela to the Devils in exchange for defenseman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round selection in this years draft. The teams also exchanged second-round picks in this year’s draft.

Kovalchuk’s offensive numbers immediately placed him as the Devils’ leading scorer. In 49 games with Atlanta, “Kovy” netted 31 goals and collected 27 assists. He also tallied 19 points on the powerplay, which gave coach Jaques Lemaire a weapon to run the point on the powerplay.

Kovy made his debut with the team the next night against the Maple Leafs. The winger didn’t score any goals, but he assisted on two goals that night. But the goals would be hard to come by. Kovalchuk didn’t score in his next three games. He didn’t even register a point. And the winger was pressing. He recorded eight shots against the Rangers on February 6, nine against the Flyers on February 8 and another five against the Flyers two days later. In the four games since the trade, Kovalchuk put 23 shots on net but couldn’t break through.

Kovalchuk finally scored his first goal as a Devil against the Predators February 12. He also recorded two assists and finished with three points, his highest offensive output for the team.  It seemed as if a weight was lifted from his shoulders. Devils fans even threw their hats on the ice to celebrate the occasion.

But the results of the trade haven’t been immediate. The Devils went 2-2-1 in their final six games before the break, and they continued their month-long slump. But what the trade brought the Devils was someone who can score goals and create his own chances. His offensive numbers are underwhelming thus far, with only one goal and four assists in the six games. But his offensive potential drew the team to him, and it’s that offensive potential we will see in the second half.

Looking back on the trade, I would think the Devils clearly made their team better. They gave up Oduya, who took a step back after last season’s offensive performance. Bergfors showed a lot of promise for a rookie, but he constantly fell out of favor with Lemaire. The Devils saw this year how much talent they have in their system, and Cormier’s disciplinary issues raised a red flag in the organization. The team acquired a proven scorer, something they’ve sorely lacked, and they didn’t give up much to get him.

Kovy’s slow start wasn’t encouraging, but I believe he will heat up during the latter part of this season. In the two games before the break, Kovy began to show promise with Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner. The powerplay can only be better with Kovy on the point, and I expect to see it flushed out and better after break. While the immediate results haven’t been evident, I believe this trade will be seen as a success when looking back on this season.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press

Olympic Hockey: Team USA Scores Six Goals In First Period, Defeats Finland, 6-1

February 26, 2010 1 comment

Team USA’s last Olympic medal on foreign soil since came in 1972, when they won silver in Sapporo, Japan.

In their semifinal game against Finland, it took the team 12:46 to guarantee they end that streak.

Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) scored two goals in the first period to lead Team USA to victory, 6-1, over Team Finland in their semifinal game in Vancouver.

The United States only needed the opening 12:46 of the first period to put the game out of reach. Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay Lightning) began the scoring merely 2:04 into the first period. Finnish goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames) came out to the slot to play a loose puck. Malone intercepted his pass at the blue line and fired the puck into the empty net for the goal, his third of the Olympics.

Zach Parise (New Jersey Devils) fires a shot past Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames) for Team USA's second goal of the game. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Zach Parise (New Jersey Devils) stretched the lead to two with a powerplay goal at 6:22 of the period. With Janne Niskala in the box for interference, Brian Rafalski (Detroit Red Wings) shot the puck from the point. The puck found Paul Statsny (Colorado Avalanche) on the crease. Statsny passed the puck to a streaking Parise, who one-timed the puck to the top of the net for the goal.

Then the rout was on.

Erik Johnson (St. Louis Blues) extended the lead to three with a powerplay goal at 8:36 of the period. Johnson got a pass from Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks) and ripped a shot from the right circle that beat Kiprusoff for the goal.

Then it was Kane’s time to shine.

Kane scored his first goal of the period at 10:08 of the first period. Kane collected the rebound from his backhand shot and put the puck into the net for the goal.

After that goal, Kiprusoff removed himself from the game. He faced seven shots, only making three saves.

Kane welcomed new goaltender Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota Wild) to the game with his second goal at 12:31 of the period. Rafalski passed the puck to Kane, who fired a shot past Backstrom for the goal.

Statsny ended the American scoring run with his goal twenty seconds later. Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey Devils) sent a pass to Statsny, who one-timed the pass by Backstrom’s glove for the goal

Team USA goalie Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) finished with 18 saves before being replaced by Tim Thomas (Boston Bruins) 8:49 into the third period. Thomas finished with six saves.

The USA will face the winner of tonight’s Canada-Slovakia in the gold-medal game Sunday (3:15, NBC).

Devils At The Break: The Curious Case of Brian Rolston

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

In the third installment of “Devils At The Break,” I’ll take a look at the Brian Rolston, the Devils’ left-winger. His second go-around with the Devils has been subpar at best, and I’ll take a look at his performance.

In the summer of 2008, Rolston was one of the big free agents on the market. The 33-year old winger came off three straight 30+ goal seasons with the Minnesota Wild, and his big shot ability allowed him to quarterback the powerplay. And his powerplay numbers were stellar, as he accumulated three straight seasons of 10+ goals.

The New Jersey Devils needed a goal scorer, but Rolston’s powerplay ability drew the team to him. The Devils didn’t have a true point man, with Paul Martin still a few years away from becoming an above-average offensive defenseman. The Devils offered Rolston a four-year, $20.25 million dollar contract, which the left-winger accepted. Rolston was, once again, a New Jersey Devil.

Brian Rolston of the New Jersey Devils handles the puck as Alex Tanguay of the Tampa Bay Lightning chases him during their game on January 8, 2010 at The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In his first season as a Devil, Rolston underperformed. The winger lost an edge and crashed into the boards in Atlanta, and had to be helped off the ice. Rolston suffered a high-ankle sprain and missed considerable time. He played through the injury, and his numbers reflected it. He finished last season with 15 goals, 17 assists, and 32 points, his lowest offensive output in seven years. He didn’t deliver on the powerplay either, finishing with eight goals and eight assists.

This year, Rolston continues to underperform. The winger has 17 goals and 13 assists on the season, which will place him above last year’s numbers. But Rolston’s major problem comes from with his lack of shot accuracy. Although there is no specific stat to track missed shot attempts, I can confidently say that many of Rolston’s shots miss the net. He fails to hit the net time and time again, especially on the power play. Those misses greatly diminish the impact of his shot. Rolston can make goalies duck in fear, as Jean-Sebastian Giguere all showed us. His shot leveled Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, leaving him laying on the ice for several minutes. But the winger hasn’t shown that same power with the Devils. As a result, Rolston hasn’t been as effecitve scorer worth almost five million dollars a year.

But the Devils should have seen this decline coming before offering him a contract. Rolston, who recently turned 37, began to decline while with the Wild. Here are his numbers from his three years in Minnesota:

Year              Goals        Assists           Points          Plus/Minus         Powerplay Points

2005-2006       34             45                  79                 14                                    32

2006-2007       31              33                 64                   6                                     34

2007-2008        31             28                59                  -1                                     28

As we can all see, Rolston’s production declined each of his three years in Minnesota. He was still productive, scoring over 50 points each season. However, his goals, assists, points and plus/minus all steadily declined. It should come as no surpise that, as Rolston ages, his production will decline. But with his offensive firepower, it shouldn’t fall off as steeply as it has. I cite his lack of shot accuracy as one of the main issues for his decline. But I’m sure that age accounts for part of the reason.

Almost halfway through his four year deal, Rolson hasn’t been the investment the Devils planned on. He hasn’t brought any significant upgrade to the powerplay, and his offensive skills look average at best. With the Devils in almost desperate need of some blue-line help, I would think Rolston would be the one dangled to other teams. It would be a tough sell for trades with his diminished production, but general manager Lou Lamoriello may be able to sell Rolston on his potential.

It’ll be interesting to see if Rolston stays for the length of the contract, but from what I’ve seen, Rolston already wore out his welcome. He’s become an older player whose skills have diminished. If he can find his offense, he can be a productive member of this team. But he continues to hurt the powerplay, and now skates on the third line (a checking line). Brian Rolston, a player who came with such high expectations, shouldn’t be expected to contribute as he did in Minnesota. He’s merely become an older player who will produce at a high level.

Olympic Hockey: Finland and USA Play For A Shot At Gold

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The Matchup: Team USA (4-0-0-0) faces off against Team Finland (3-0-0-1). This is the first meeting of the two teams in the Olympics.

Ryan Miller and Team USA face off against Finland today at 3 p.m.

The Last Team USA Game: On Wednesday, Team USA faced off against Switzerland in the quarterfinal round. The teams were scoreless in the third period until Zach Parise (New Jersey Devils) broke the tie with a powerplay goal at 2:08 of the period. He added an empty-net goal at 19:49 to ice the victory.

The Last Team Finland Game: On Wednesday night, Team Finland faced off against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal round. The teams were scoreless in the third period until Niklas Hagman (Calgary Flames) broke the tie with a powerplay goal at 6:26 of the period. Valtteri Filppula (Detroit Red Wings) iced the victory with an empty net goal at 18:25 of the period. Finnish goalie Mikka Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames) finished with 31 saves.

The Last Team USA – Team Finland Game: The last time the two teams played, in the 2006 Torino Olympics, Finland defeated the US, 4-3. Team USA leads the all-time series, 6-3-2.

This Afternoon’s Game: Many of the previews I’ve read for the game think this will be a light-hitting affair. But I’m going to go with the opposite. In order to establish themselves, I believe the US needs to dominate the physical game early. If they can set the tone there, then they can have some momentum. However, physical play won’t be the only factor for the US. The Finnish team will pressure the Americans on the forecheck, and they will attempt to capitalize on the mistakes. The US doesn’t have to play a perfect game, but they need to execute. Bad turnovers will lead to quality scoring chances, and Finland is a team that can bury those chances.

The game will be on NBC at 3 p.m. Canada and Slovakia will face off at 9:30 tonight.

Quick Shots: Clarkson To Play In San Jose, Martin Out Until March 10

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

With the Olympics in full swing, the only real Devils’ news has come from those playing in the tournament. But with the season about to start again, here’s some recent updates from the team.

David Clarkson will join the team and return to lineup March 2 against San Jose. The winger practiced the past two days and will play. Defenseman Paul Martin, however, will not make the trip. The defenseman still cannot take shots and hasn’t practiced with the team. He’s looking to rejoin the team March 10 against the Rangers.

Devils Olympians Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk will rejoin the team in San Jose.

For those of us in the East, enjoy tonight’s snow!

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A quick Olympic update: The U.S. women lost in the gold medal game, 2-0, to Canada. They’ll bring home the silver. It’s an improvement over their finish four years ago, when they brought home the bronze from the Torino Olympics.