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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.”

Pat LaFontaine uniting hockey at every level

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The sport of hockey has always elicited great pride in the culture surrounding the game, but Hockey Hall-of-Famer Pat LaFontaine wanted to enhance the experience for players at all ages.

Named one of the 100 Greatest Players during the NHL’s Centennial anniversary, LaFontaine sought a document that could unite all levels of hockey and serve as a written guideline for the sport moving forward.

“Hockey’s greatest values are the principles and life skills it teaches you,” LaFontaine said in a recent phone interview with NBC Olympics. “The real value of the game is the leadership, teamwork, discipline, sacrifice and the hard work that the game instills. Whatever you do in life, you can look back and say hockey was a vehicle that taught you those life skills and values.”

In recent years, LaFontaine worked tirelessly to gather representatives from all levels of hockey to discuss the state of the game and collaborate on cultural and structural changes to positively impact the sport.

NBCOlympics.com: Full men’s and women’s hockey schedules

The first step was defining their objective.

In early September, the committee revealed the Declaration of Principles – a set of commonly shared beliefs that articulate a vision of delivering the best possible hockey experience for participants and their families.

The Principles are meant to serve as an internal compass to help guide decisions and shift behaviors of hockey organizations, as well as players, parents, coaches, fans, partners and all those who represent and care for the sport of hockey.

“One of the proudest days for me was when the Declaration of Principles was signed,” LaFontaine said. “Because it’s the entire global hockey community coming together to aspire to be better and live to a higher standard. The real value of what the game gives and try to focus on what’s really important.”

As for LaFontaine, there are few former players, especially Americans, who have the background and resume to carry out such an initiative.

LaFontaine represented the United States on the Olympic stage twice (1984, 1998). He is one of a handful of American players to participate in the tournament as both an amateur and an NHLer.

“You couldn’t put a price tag on wearing a USA hockey jersey in a foreign country,” LaFontaine said. “To this day, it is still one of the most memorable experiences in my career.”

The NHL has elected to not participate in the Olympics after playing in the previous five tournaments dating back to the 1998 Nagano games.

NBCOlympics.com: No NHL players promises wild hockey tournament

“It is still this great game of hockey,” LaFontaine said. “It is still this great competition. There is still this pride in where you’re from, representing your culture, your country, your ideals. It is going to be a very unique and special experience.”

The Olympics present an opportunity for players of varied ages with different experience to come together to achieve one common goal.

The Declaration of Principles can play a meaningful role in the 2018 Olympics if any team decides to follow the parameters and use it as a resource to help form a unique connection and bond with a single goal in mind.

Why U.S. kept going to T.J. Oshie in shootout vs. Russia

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After seeing the U.S. send T.J. Oshie out for a dizzying six shootout attempts in a 3-2 win against Russia on Saturday, many people probably asked: “Why?”

The 27-year-old has never scored more than 19 goals in his young career and is far, far down the list of the team’s most recognizable players. To some, it was flabbergasting that U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma kept sending him out for big attempts while high-scoring forwards Phil Kessel, Zach Parise and Patrick Kane watched from the bench. Especially since Russia rolled out stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk in the same situation.

But it worked, as he nailed four of six, including the deciding tally.

VIDEO: Watch OT and the shootout again

If you want a little more background on Bylsma’s decision-making process, here’s a quick look at how Oshie has fared in shootouts at the NHL level:

  • Oshie is currently tied with Logan Couture and Jonathan Toews for the NHL lead in shootout goals with seven. While those players have connected on a bit more than 50 percent of their attempts, Oshie’s success rate is 70 percent this season.
  • He didn’t receive a ton of chances in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, but he connected on two of his three attempts.
  • Since coming into the league in 2008-09, Oshie has 25 shootout goals.

Does that mean he deserved every chance? That’s debatable … but it’s clear that there was plenty of logic behind what seemed to some like a strange strategy.

Part of the plan

ESPN’s behind-the-scenes look at the U.S. team’s construction hints that Oshie was on the bubble for a final roster spot alongside the likes of Brandon Saad and Bobby Ryan. His shootout prowess may very well have been the tie-breaker, at least to U.S. GM David Poile.

“Oshie’s got that shootout move,” Poile said.

Oshie’s post-game reaction seems fitting, then; he told NBC’s Pierre McGuire that he was “running out of moves” as his attempts kept piling up.

As this great panoramic shot from AP reveals, his teammates seemed OK with him taking shootout shot after shot:

source: AP
Credit: AP