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Carpe Diem: U.S. goalie goes from near retirement to Olympic favorite

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Goalie Ryan Zapolski was vacationing in Rome this past offseason when he began receiving messages with links to articles projecting the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team.

Under normal circumstances, a 30-year-old journeyman on a Finnish club with zero NHL experience would have disregarded them.

But these are unusual times. The NHL is not participating in the Olympics for the first time since 1994.

Zapolski knew this by early April. And he also knew that there was a dearth of notable American goalies playing in the world’s other top leagues. None who have ever played in the NHL, actually.

So Zapolski could not have been surprised to look at those Team USA projections and see his name on most, if not all of them.

“It’s disappointing for fans that the NHL wouldn’t be there [in PyeongChang],” Zapolski said in a phone interview earlier this month, “but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.”

Zapolski, by virtue of an incredible early season in the world’s second-best league, is the current favorite to start in PyeongChang. The Americans open against Slovenia on Feb. 14.

U.S. hockey officials are usually tight-lipped about Olympic roster prospects, but Zapolski has been so good this fall that even U.S. general manager Jim Johannson had to say the Erie, Penn., native has “separated himself.”

When Zapolski was named last week to the U.S. roster for its only pre-Olympic tournament, he was leading the Russian KHL in wins (16-1 record), save percentage (.956), goals-against average (1.11) and shutouts (five). He has since lost three straight games but remains No. 2 in save percentage and goals-against.

The KHL includes 27 teams from seven nations. Zapolski plays for Helsinki’s Jokerit, which has been on average the best non-Russian team in the league since it joined in 2014-15.

Zapolski is now in his fifth season in Finland.

Before that he bounced around — the Mahoning Valley Phantoms, a walk-on at Erie’s Mercyhurst College, the Florida Everblades, Stockton Thunder, Kalamazoo Wings, Toledo Walleye, Gwinnett Gladiators and South Carolina Stingrays.

Frustration set in as he tried and failed to find regular playing time in the ECHL. So many players on NHL and AHL contracts get sent down there.

“I was almost done,” in 2012, said Zapolski, who became a full-time goalie at age 12 and didn’t get serious until 16 or 17. “Traveling to six different cities in a season, not really going anywhere. Then I got a chance in South Carolina and took off.”

Zapolski was the league’s top goalie in 2012-13 by a considerable margin with a goals-against of 1.64 (second-best was 2.17) and a save percentage of .942 (second-best was .925).

It didn’t lead to attention from NHL clubs, but the Finnish League offered him a chance to continue playing regularly.

Zapolski took it and was the No. 1 for one of its top clubs for three seasons before joining Jokerit, the only Finnish team in the KHL. Last season was not his best, and Jokerit then signed Finnish veteran Karri Ramo, a former Tampa Bay Lightning backup.

But Ramo suffered a knee injury in training camp, Zapolski said. That provided Zapolski a chance to earn his place early this season. Suffice to say, he has. Zapolski’s current contract is up in 2018.

“If it’s a good offer, and it works out the next few years, I’ll stay [in Finland],” said Zapolski, who lives with his wife (no kids) in Finland but spends summers in Erie. “I do want that chance to go back home, but it’s really got to be a team that says we’re going to give you a fair chance to be in the NHL. It’s pretty rare for guys my age to jump over to the NHL.”

Zapolski’s associations with the Olympics are few.

“I think [1980 Olympic forward] Mark Johnson maybe walked by me in a hallway once,” he said.

But the U.S. has a history of Olympic star-turn goalies.

Of course, Jim Craig is the clearest example from the Miracle on Ice.

There’s also Ray LeBlanc, one of the veterans on the 1992 Olympic team at age 27. LeBlanc had just as dizzying of a minor-league odyssey as Zapolski before nearly backstopping the U.S. to a surprise medal in Albertville. He had a 46-save shutout of Germany.

LeBlanc got his NHL call shortly thereafter, playing his first and final game for the Blackhawks the next month. (Chicago had an ulterior motive — LeBlanc’s start meant that it could protect its top goalies from an upcoming expansion draft)

Also in 1960, Jack McCartan, on loan from the U.S. Army, beat the Canadians, Czechs (twice) and Soviets en route to gold. Originally cut from the Olympic team, McCartan ended up becoming one of two players from that roster to make the NHL.

Zapolski wears the American flag on the back of his Jokerit mask. At Mercyhurst, where he played in front of a few hundred fans on average, the team motto was “Carpe Diem.” He notes that Mercyhurst has an NHL pipeline of one — defenseman Jamie Hunt played one game for the Washington Capitals in 2006.

The Olympics could be his big chance.

“Everybody dreams of playing in Olympics, winning the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d be playing hockey at this age still. When you’re bouncing around the minors, your dream shakes a bit.”

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MORE: Olympic hockey schedule announced

Mexico snatches Olympic baseball spot from U.S., which must now wait

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The U.S. was three outs from clinching a spot in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years. Instead, Mexico will play for an Olympic baseball medal for the first time, forcing the Americans to wait until March.

The Mexicans scored once in the ninth inning and walked off in the 10th, taking a winner-goes-to-the-Olympics game 3-2 at the Premier12 at the Tokyo Dome on Sunday.

Mexico joined Japan, Israel and South Korea in the six-team 2020 Olympic baseball tournament. Baseball returns to the Games in July for the first time since it was voted off the Olympic program following the 2008 Beijing Games. Baseball will not be on the Paris 2024 program but could return again for Los Angeles 2028.

Mexico, managed by former MLB infielder Juan Castro, rallied to deny what would have been an improbable U.S. run to the lone Olympic berth available for teams from the Americas at Premier12.

The U.S. needed four straight game results to go its way to remain in Olympic qualifying contention. From Wednesday through Saturday, the U.S. beat Chinese Taipei, Japan and South Korea beat Mexico and Chinese Taipei beat Australia.

On Sunday, the Americans were up 2-1 in the ninth inning. They were in prime position to qualify for the Olympics for the fifth time in six tries since it was added as a medal event in 1992.

Then Mexican designated hitter Matt Clark, who played for the U.S. at the 2011 Pan American Games and for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014, smacked a home run to lead off the bottom of the ninth. In extra innings, runners are placed on first and second to start each half-inning. Efren Navarro ended the game in the 10th on a walk-off single.

While Mexico celebrates its first Olympic baseball berth, the U.S. focus shifts to an Americas qualifier in March in Arizona (and, if necessary, a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei).

The roster at Premier12 included many double-A and triple-A prospects, but it remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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MORE: Israel baseball turned to Shlomo Lipetz for the biggest out in program history

Alexandra Trusova qualifies for Grand Prix Final after win at Rostelecom Cup

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Alexandra Trusova, the Russian 15-year-old, won Rostelecom Cup in Moscow on Saturday to earn a spot in December’s prestigious six-skater Grand Prix Final. And notably, Russia swept all four disciplines on home ice.

Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, also of Russia, earned the silver. Meanwhile, American Mariah Bell won the third Grand Prix medal of her career, a bronze.

Trusova fell on her opening quadruple Salchow attempt, but landed a quad Lutz and a quad toe, triple toe combination to follow. She also landed a quad toe, Euler, triple Salchow combination but fell on the next jumping combination, a triple Lutz, triple loop attempt.

Despite two falls, Trusova’s free skate earned 160.26 points, giving her enough to leapfrog Medvedeva for the title at 234.47 points. Trusova is into the Grand Prix Final by virtue of her wins in Moscow and at Skate Canada.

“I made some mistakes in short and free program and I’ll continue to work to skate two clean programs next time,” Trusova said via the International Skating Union (ISU). “I would like to compete with the men, because they can do a quad in the short program and we are not allowed to. Also, it would be interesting to compete with skaters that do many quads in the programs,” she added.

Medvedeva skated a clean program to the “Memoirs of a Geisha” soundtrack, including seven triples and two double Axels. The 19-year-old Russian laid her head on coach Brian Orser‘s shoulder and said “I’m tired” with a chuckle as she waited in the Kiss and Cry for her scores to be announced: 148.83 in the free skate for 225.76 total points.

“It is in my plans to learn a quad, I am working on the quad Salchow, but at the same time I need to make sure I stay healthy,” Medvedeva said through the ISU. “I’ll do everything I can for it and I hope to put it out there as soon as possible.”

Bell’s bronze is the third Grand Prix series medal of the her career, and second this season after another bronze at Grand Prix France. She skated without any major errors to K.D. Lang’s “Hallelujah.”

Earlier Saturday in the men’s event, Alexander Samarin, Dmitri Aliev, and Makar Ignatov completed a podium sweep for Russia. The last time three Russian men swept the podium at Rostelecom Cup was 1998, when Alexei Urmanov, Yevgeni Plushenko, and Alexander Abt completed the feat.

Samarin opened his free skate on Saturday with a quad Lutz, triple toe combination and only erred on his triple flip, which was called with an unclear edge. He earned 171.64 points in his free skate for a total score of 264.45 points.

Aliev, though, attempted two quad toes (one in combination) and earned positive Grades of Execution on both. His only major error came from an invalid triple Lutz as part of a jumping sequence in the second half of the program, which scored 169.42 points. He tallied 259.88 total points.

Both Samarin (silver at Grand Prix France) and Aliev (bronze at Skate America) have won medals this season during the Grand Prix series. Entries to December’s Grand Prix Final will be determined after the conclusion of NHK Trophy in Japan next weekend.

Ignatov’s free skate included a quad Salchow and a quad toe, both called clean. He scored 252.87 total points to edge Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno from Japan for the bronze by 0.63 points.

The lone U.S. men’s entry, Alex Krasnozhon, finished 10th.

The standings in ice dance did not change between the rhythm dance and the free dance. Russia’s Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov held on to their gold medal position and scored 126.06 points in the free dance for 212.15 total points. As last weekend’s winners at Cup of China, they solidified a berth to the Grand Prix Final.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada finished in second with a free dance score of 125.08 points for 207.64 points. They were surprise winners of Skate Canada, but have not definitively qualified for the Final. Spain’s Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin finished third with 185.01 total points. The U.S. did not have an ice dance entry.

Also Saturday, Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia won the pairs event after scoring 149.34 in the free skate to tally 229.48 points overall. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (two-time European champions and three-time World medalists) captured the silver medals with 216.77 total points. Russia sat in first, second, and third after the short program, but the third Russian pair in the field, Ksenia Stolbova and Andrei Novoselov, fell from third to fifth overall.

Germany’s Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert took the bronze with 186.16 total points, rising from sixth place after the short.

The last time one nation swept all four disciplines at a Grand Prix was Russia at this competition in 2005.

Rostelecom Cup Results
Women
1. Alexandra Trusova (RUS) — 234.47
2. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 225.76
3. Mariah Bell (USA) — 205.67
4. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 192.42
5. Ekaterina Ryabova (AZE) — 187.77
6. Yuhana Yokoi (JPN) — 182.68
7. Alexia Pagani (SUI) — 179.69
8. Chen Hongyi (CHN) — 175.77
9. Nicole Schott (GER) — 172.08
10. Yuna Shiraiwa (JPN) — 170.03
11. Stanislava Konstantinova (RUS) — 156.94
12. Emmi Peltonen (FIN) — 152.50

Men
1. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 264.45
2. Dmitri Aliev (RUS) — 259.88
3. Makar Ignatov (RUS) — 252.87
4. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 252.24
5. Nam Nguyen (CAN) — 246.20
6. Deniss Vasiljevs (LAT) — 241.09
7. Morisi Kvitelashvili (GEO) — 237.59
8. Kazuki Tomono (JPN) — 237.54
9. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 236.47
10. Alex Krasnozhon (USA) — 216.28
11. Vladimir Litvintsev (AZE) — 209.07
WD. Daniel Samohin (ISR) — 56.94 (Short program only)

Pairs
1. Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 229.48
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 216.77
3. Minerva Fabienne Hase/Nolan Seegert (GER) — 186.16
4. Miriam Ziegler/Severin Kiefer (AUT) — 182.02
5. Ksenia Stolbova/Andrei Novoselov (RUS) — 177.51
6. Evelyn Walsh/Trennt Michaud (CAN) — 168.96
7. Rebecca Ghilardi/Filippo Ambrosini (ITA) — 162.76
8. Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov (USA) — 153.61

Ice Dance
1. Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 212.15

2. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 207.64
3. Sara Hurtado/Kirill Khaliavin (ESP) — 185.01
4. Natalia Kaliszek/Maksym Spodyriev (POL) — 178.70
5. Allison Reed/Saulius Ambrulevicius (LTU) — 175.43
6. Anastasia Shpilevaya/Grigory Smirnov (RUS) — 172.93
7. Marjorie Lajoie/Zachary Lagha (CAN) — 169.90
8. Adelina Galyavieva/Louis Thauron (FRA) — 164.79
9. Anastasia Skoptcova/Kirill Aleshin (RUS) — 164.64
10. Jasmine Tessari/Francesco Fioretti (ITA) — 154.44

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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