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Goaltending gives European underdogs a chance at Olympics

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Craig Ramsay knows Russia has the best men’s hockey team at the Olympics.

He just doesn’t think Slovakia is far behind.

The former NHL coach is trying to make Slovakia’s players believe they can beat the likes of Canada, Sweden and the United States.

“We’re trying to change to get the mindset where we’re going to go out and try to win and not just hope we win,” Ramsay said.

Slovakia, Finland and Germany are undoubtedly underdogs in South Korea but have teams — and goaltending — that should make the traditional powerhouses nervous. In a short tournament with three pool games and single-elimination medal-round playoffs, there’s a small margin for error and a big chance for goalies to steal games.

No country exemplifies that more than Finland, which has medaled in four of the past five Olympics and has 6-foot-6 Kontinental Hockey League star Mikko Koskinen and longtime NHL goalie Karri Ramo between the pipes.

“That is our strength in Olympics,” Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki said. “All three goalies are pretty good goalies, and Koskinen played many years in Russia, (won) KHL championships two times. Karri had a bad injury after the Calgary Flames, but now he’s (in) good shape and play pretty high level.”

Slovakia doesn’t boast the same name-recognition goalies or skaters as Finland, which has 2017 first-round picks Miro Heiskanen and Eeli Tolvanen and more former NHL players, but Ramsay has gotten great play in net so far. In four pre-Olympic tournament games, four different goalies earned first star honors for Slovakia, which could start Jan Laco, Branislav Konrad or Patrik Rybar when it faces the U.S. on Feb. 16.

“You’re a very smart coach when your goalie’s really good,” said Ramsay, a 66-year-old Canadian who coached the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers and won the Stanley Cup as a Tampa Bay Lightning assistant. “Our goalies — Konrad, Laco, Rybar — if they can play as well as they played in all our other tournament games, at least it gives us a chance.”

     NBCOlympics.com: Full Olympic Ice Hockey Schedule

Ramsay also looks at Germany and believes coach Marco Sturm’s team can win if it gets good goaltending from Timo Pielmeier, Danny aus den Birken or Dennis Endras.

“They can skate, they’re physical, they can play,” Ramsay said. “Marco’s done a wonderful job with that team. We beat them (at the Deutschland Cup in November), but they were very aggressive. They didn’t give up the red line, they didn’t give up their blue line. They were up and they were in our face.”

Ramsay wants Slovakia to play in-your-face hockey, a contrast from most international tournaments and the traditional European, trapping style. Slovakia has only a few former NHL players, including forwards Ladislav Nagy and Tomas Surovy, so it can’t afford to sit back against the Russians or Americans.

“There are times that you have to be smart, but we need to be more aggressive,” Ramsay said. “We need to get everybody up ice. We need to have five guys together up ice and then five guys coming back. I would rather backcheck skating forwards than just stand around at center ice. I never liked that as a coach and I think we need to be more aggressive and go out there and try to win and not just rely on keeping the game close and hope we can score something later in the game.”

NBCOlympics.com: Without NHL players, Olympic tournament is ‘wide open’

Finland might be able to win with a more conservative approach. The Finns are known for overachieving and being better as the sum of their parts in these kinds of tournaments, and Marjamaki is confident that will happen again.

“I know we will be a tough opponent for the other teams,” Marjamaki said. “I think we play so disciplined and together and our commitment is great.”

Marjamaki said he believes Finland is on the same level as Canada, the U.S., Sweden and the Czech Republic, but acknowledged: “OK is not enough. We need top-level (play) to succeed.”

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

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Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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