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.”

Olympian Derrick Mein ends U.S. men’s trap drought at shotgun worlds

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Tokyo Olympian Derrick Mein became the first U.S. male shooter to win a world title in the trap event since 1966, prevailing at the world shotgun championships in Osijek, Croatia, on Wednesday.

Mein, who grew up on a small farm in Southeast Kansas, hunting deer and quail, nearly squandered a place in the final when he missed his last three shots in the semifinal round after hitting his first 22. He rallied in a sudden-death shoot-off for the last spot in the final by hitting all five of his targets.

He hit 33 of 34 targets in the final to win by two over Brit Nathan Hales with one round to spare.

The last U.S. man to win an Olympic trap title was Donald Haldeman in 1976.

Mein, 37, was 24th in his Olympic debut in Tokyo (and placed 13th with Kayle Browning in the mixed-gender team event).

The U.S. swept the Tokyo golds in the other shotgun event — skeet — with Vincent Hancock and Amber English. Browning took silver in women’s trap.

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Mo Farah withdraws before London Marathon

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British track legend Mo Farah withdrew before Sunday’s London Marathon, citing a right hip injury before what would have been his first 26.2-mile race in nearly two years.

Farah, who swept the 2012 and 2016 Olympic track titles at 5000m and 10,000m, said he hoped “to be back out there” next April, when the London Marathon returns to its traditional month after COVID moved it to the fall for three consecutive years. Farah turns 40 on March 23.

“I’ve been training really hard over the past few months and I’d got myself back into good shape and was feeling pretty optimistic about being able to put in a good performance,” in London, Farah said in a press release. “However, over the past 10 days I’ve been feeling pain and tightness in my right hip. I’ve had extensive physio and treatment and done everything I can to be on the start line, but it hasn’t improved enough to compete on Sunday.”

Farah switched from the track to the marathon after the 2017 World Championships and won the 2018 Chicago Marathon in a then-European record time of 2:05:11. Belgium’s Bashir Abdi now holds the record at 2:03:36.

Farah returned to the track in a failed bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, then shifted back to the roads.

Sunday’s London Marathon men’s race is headlined by Ethiopians Kenenisa Bekele and Birhanu Legese, the second- and third-fastest marathoners in history.

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