Month: April 2017 (page 1 of 4)

Ukraine hopes to build legacy

By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

One year ago Japan was relegated from the Division I Group A with zero points and a 7-26 goal record in five games. Ukraine may do slightly better this year but after starting with four losses the home team won’t be able to improve from sixth place and will have to go back to the Division I Group B.

This is certainly not what the hosts were hoping for on their home ice in Kyiv but it mirrors the difficult situation for the country and in general since violent acts in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine destabilized the country and its economy.

Its big neighbour Russia also has a big influence in hockey. Until 2014 relations were better and Donbass Donetsk played in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL as the best league in Eastern Europe has always attracted the best Ukrainian players with good salaries and little language barriers and having a KHL team in the country was a good thing for them.

Since separatists took control of areas in Eastern Ukraine and destroyed the ice rink in Donetsk owned by a pro-Ukrainian businessman, little fittingly for these days called Palace of Sports Druzhba (Friendship), the KHL team ceased to exist and after a one-year break HC Donbass relaunched its operation in the government-controlled part of the Donbass region in Druzhkivka and won the last two Ukrainian championships.

For top players that meant moving to other teams namely in the KHL. This caused the next problem for Ukraine. The Soviet-born Ukrainian players can have citizenship in Russia too by law and thus want to play as Russians in the KHL rather than being part of the import contingent. But by the rules in the KHL, Russians with another citizenship only count as Russians if they don’t play for a national team from another nation.

This rule had a massive impact on this year’s roster. Goaltender Sergi Gaiduchenko and forwards Olexander Materukhin, Pavlo Padakin, Olexi Ponikarovsky, and one tier below the KHL Yevgen Belukhin are some of the country’s top player that were missing due to this rule.

But that’s not all. Andri Mikhnov, who had 85 scoring points in the Belarusian league this season, couldn’t come due to injury, same for Oleg Shafarenko, one of the top centremen of the country, and defenceman Denys Petrukhno. One of the country’s top prospects, Igor Merezhko, went the other direction than other Ukrainian players abroad and is busy in the playoffs of the Western Hockey League with the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

That leaves Ukraine with a roster exclusively from the domestic UHL, mainly from two clubs, HC Donbass and HK Kremenchuk. But playing internationally against teams like Kazakhstan and Korea is hockey at a very different level.

“We don’t have enough good players for the national team but those players we have, we have to use,” Ukrainian assistant coach Pavlo Mikhonik explained the situation. “With a bit more luck at the tournament we could have scored more goals and maybe even victories but we didn’t have it.”

Ukraine didn’t look out of place. All games were lost by one or two goals. Its scoring efficiency wasn’t good, only Poland had more trouble converting chances. Only one of 20 power plays ended with a goal for the Ukrainians while the penalty kill was statistically the worst of the tournament as well.

“All opponents were difficult for us and the players gave it all, we can’t criticize them,” Mikhonik said. “The players don’t need any extra motivation. They play in their own country, for their fans.”

But Ukrainian hockey can also draw positives from this tournament. Many players from the Ukrainian team are able to compete. Some may be able to play at a higher level elsewhere.

And the Palace of Sports, the country’s most important and storied indoor sporting venue in the centre of its capital, got back ice hockey at the site where many IIHF events took place in the past and where now-defunct Sokil Kyiv was once playing for medals in the Soviet championship.

The arena was full for most of Ukraine’s game and had descent attendance for other games thanks to locals who show genuine interest in hockey and fans from other countries who travelled to Ukraine to loudly support their team and create a hockey party at the arena and around it with a fan zone and music on the stage.

Playing in the heart of Kyiv is important since there’s no club team in the city (but around it) anymore. Now the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine (FHU) plans to expand to a new city, Odessa at the Black Sea. The All-Star Game of the newly created women’s league was the first national ice hockey event at the city that gained in importance for domestic tourism after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now the federation applied to host the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division I Group B there in competition with bids from Austria, Hungary and Italy.

The support was not only heard at the arena. Ukrainian politicians and athletes took the opportunity to watch the games at the Palace of Sports as hockey was back in downtown Kyiv. And the TV ratings were great including 13 million watching the 1-0 loss against Austria, about one third of the population.

These are all encouraging signs that will hopefully help make hockey bigger in the country that played in the top division between 1999 and 2007.

From Boston to Belfast

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By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

It’s been a tough week for the Netherlands. With the country’s top team, Tilburg Trappers, still in German playoff action, head coach Chris Eimers is forced to go with a young roster and hope that some of his more experienced guys can get to Northern Ireland in time to help the team’s bid to stay up in Division IB.

But crisis brings opportunity: that youthful line-up gives a chance to run the rule over the next generation of Dutch hockey talent. Among the youngsters who are growing up fast here, 20-year-old Guus van Nes has been one of the most eye-catching.

A year ago, he was scrapping for minutes on the fourth line in Jaca as the Dutch took gold in Division IIA. This time, he’s got a spot on the Netherlands’ top line, replacing injured assistant captain Raphael Joly and looking to supply the cutting edge that can preserve his country’s Division I status.

And, despite a tough tournament so far – three losses, 20 goals against and just three scored – the Boston Bruins junior prospect is enjoying the added responsibility.

“This tournament has been great for me,” he said. “The older guys on the roster – guys like Kevin Bruijsten – have been helping me out and I’m learning a lot. I know I’ll be a better hockey player after this experience. It’s great for my development, adjusting to a different level, playing against guys with a lot of international experience.”

That upbeat attitude typifies the Dutch approach to this tournament: dealt a rough hand by the conflicting schedules of club and international competition, Eimers and his team remain stoic – and optimistic.

“We understand the situation we are in, but there are still two games to go,” van Nes added. “If we can win one of them, we that will probably mean we stay in this division. It’s tough, but we’ll try to make the best of it.”

On a personal level, this season has been something of a break-out for van Nes. Coach Eimers was delighted with his player’s progress since Spain in 2016 and insists that the youngster’s current prominent role is on merit, rather than necessity.

“Guus really developed last year,” Eimers said. “He was with us last year in Jaca and he did well there, but since then he’s had a really good camp. When the situation arose with Joly [and his injury], we felt that Guus deserved to be bumped up to that line alongside Kevin [Bruijsten].

“He’s really grown this year, he’s definitely a young prospect and one of the better U20 guys who came here. Now we’re waiting to see if he can get a scholarship with the NCAA.”

For his part, van Nes credits his progress to a summer of hard work and a big opportunity with the Junior Bruins in the USPHL, a Junior A Tier 3 league. The Dordrecht native is in his third season with the organisation, and this time round he plundered 45 points in 43 games in the Premier Division in his most active and most successful campaign to date.

“Being over there is helping me a lot,” he added. “Playing in America is a totally different game. I’m skating a lot and I feel like I get better day on day. It’s very different to playing in Europe, but the whole thing is just an awesome experience.”

For a young player emerging from a relatively small hockey nation, the Bruins name is also a nice line on the resume – even if it’s some way from the fame and glamour of the world-famous NHL team.

“Obviously you don’t feel the whole Bruins history and mystique when you’re playing on a team at that level, but it’s still a good name to a part of and it attracts more people to come and watch, so it’s quite exciting that way,” van Nes added.

For now, though, the focus is on Division I survival. “We feel our performance is better than our results and we’ll see what we can do about getting that win,” van Nes concluded.

Kuwait Wins DI Challenge Cup of Asia After 13-0 Win

By Steve Ellis – Eurohockey.com

Kuwait easily won the gold medal at the 2017 Division I Challenge Cup of Asia event, beating Oman 13-0 in the final game.

It was an easy game from start to finish, with Kuwait taking a 5-0 lead after 20 minutes of play. Ahmad Al Ajmi scored three of his five goals in the opening frame, eventually earning the top player award for the game. Al Ajmi was also named tournament MVP thanks to posting 11 goals and 17 points in just three games for Kuwait.

Abdulaziz Sheftail was also on top of his game, scoring twice and adding four assists to finish with six points on the night.

Jasem Al Sarraf stopped all 16 shots he faced, resulting in a perfect 2-0 record with no goals allowed on 24 shots overall.

Kuwait was able to secure their second gold medal at the Division I tournament, with the team beating Singapore to win gold back in 2015. India managed to come second place while Oman finished third and Macau came last with zero points.

 

منتخب الكويت لهوكي الجليد يحرز كأس اسيا ٢٠١٧🏆🥇🏒🥅 Kuwait national ice hockey team 🏆🥇🏒🥅

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2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs second-round preview: Blues vs. Predators

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By Jared Clinton – The Hockey News

THE BLUES WIN IF…

The Wild understood following their first-round defeat that the difference-maker in the first-round against the Blues was Jake Allen. Minnesota out shot St. Louis in all but one of the five first-round games, but it was the Blues who emerged victorious thanks to the standout play from their starting netminder. No one should have been surprised ‘Jake the Snake’ played so well, though.

Heading into the post-season, Allen was playing the best hockey of his campaign. Of course, when measured on a personal scale, that’s not saying all that much. Allen was terrible in the early part of the season and even an average performance in the back half would have made him look vastly improved. But the truth is that over the final months of the season, few netminders were as sound as Allen. Since coach Mike Yeo took over on Feb. 1, no goaltender who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 had a better save percentage or stopped a higher percentage of high-danger shots than Allen. He was outstanding. And if the Blues are going to get through to the Western Conference final, it’s likely going to have to be the Allen show once again.

Nashville, like Minnesota, has a balanced attack with plenty of scoring throughout the lineup. That means beyond Allen, a lot of pressure is going to be on the St. Louis defense to slow things down. In the first round, the Blues had a tough time shutting down a deep Wild team, but the possession numbers in the one meeting between the Predators and Yeo’s Blues seems to indicate the teams are fairly evenly matched. That wasn’t the case against the Wild. It’s also going to be key for St. Louis to stop the counter-attack and odd-man rushes that Nashville generates. As good as Allen has played, he’s going to have a tough time if he’s consistently seeing 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s.

What the Blues do with the opportunities they do get against a stingy Predators club might be what eventually separates St. Louis, though. In shutting down Chicago in the opening round, Nashville showed a smothering, suffocating defensive structure that didn’t offer many — or really any — options to an attacking team. The Blues are going to face a similar structure, no doubt, but if they can break it down and get to the net, chances will arise. At that point, it’s going to be up to the Blues to do what the Blackhawks couldn’t: capitalize. 

THE PREDATORS WIN IF…

One would be hard-pressed to find a single hole in Nashville’s first-round game plan. The execution was perfect. The Predators shut down everything through the neutral zone and made a star-studded Blackhawks team look pedestrian in a four-game sweep of the Western Conference leaders. Beyond that, Nashville showed strength in the possession game, ability to turn the puck up ice in a hurry and the Predators got contributions from up and down the lineup. And if the second round is a continuation of the first, Nashville might be on their way to the first conference final in franchise history.

Defensively, the Predators are going to have their hands full once again. The Blues aren’t lacking for high-end offensive talent, but luckily for Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, his team has a stable of defenders that might be able to do what Minnesota couldn’t and shut St. Louis’ offense down. Laviolette isn’t afraid to trot his top four our regularly, either. In the four-game series against the Blackhawks, the Predators’ top four defenders all averaged more than 25 minutes per game. The combined averages of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, fifth and sixth in the rotation, didn’t match that.

It’s going to be important, too, that Nashville somehow manages to beat Allen, who was seemingly impenetrable in the Blues’ first-round win. The best way might not be through the Predators’ most noteworthy stars, however. Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen are going to see big minutes against the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, the best defenders St. Louis has at the ready. The same goes for James Neal and Mike Fisher. They’ll still be important to the attack, but Nashville’s edge might come from the bottom six.

There were a few games during the opening round where Kevin Fiala, who played little more than half the season with the big club, looked like as terrorizing as any other Predators forward. In Game 2, he scored a power play marker and followed that up with a Game 3 in which he put seven shots on goal and scored the overtime winner after having a few chances to end the game. It was proof of the type of offensive punch Fiala can provide when he gets free, and the focus put on Nashville’s top six might give Fiala a shot at making some noise. Don’t sleep on the rest of the third and fourth lines, either. The Predators got nine points out of the bottom half of their lineup. 

X-FACTOR:

Blues: Someone eventually needs to break down the Predators’ defense and who better than Vladimir Tarasenko? Tarasenko has the speed and skill to go around defenders, but the first round was evidence that Nashville won’t let that happen easy. Luckily for the Blues, then, that Tarasenko also isn’t opposed to going right through defenders. He didn’t exactly have an earth-shattering performance against the Wild, but he did score one goal and three points while generating 21 shots. Tarasenko is the perfect example of an attacker that defenders simply hope to contain, but that’s hard to do for long. If he breaks out this series, expect the Predators to be shoveling a few pucks out of the back of the net courtesy of the Russian sniper.

Predators: If the first round was any indication, Allen better get ready for a goaltending duel with Pekka Rinne. Nashville’s veteran netminder didn’t just win all four games against Chicago, he blanked the powerful Blackhawks offense twice and allowed only three goals against across the four-game series. His .976 save percentage and 0.70 goals-against average are the best marks of any starter in the post-season. That said, St. Louis was far better at generating scoring chances during the regular season than Chicago, so Rinne could be set to see more rubber from in close. If he can carry his first-round performance on to the second round, though, Nashville might not have a problem getting past the Blues. 

KEY MATCHUP:

Two young snipers square off and they’ll be the heart of the offense in this series. Both teams are coming in with goalies that stole series and broke hearts in Round 1 and it’ll be up to Vladimir Tarasenko and Filip Forsberg to solve those puzzles in net. They’ve got the skills to do it as they were each one of the league’s best scorers this season. The depth on both these teams at forwards leaves a bit to be desired, but the top lines are amazing and more than make up for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two teams go power on power here and trade goals in this series, so it’ll fall on these two stars to carry the load. Both look to be close in value, with Tarasenko being the more dynamic offensive threat while Forsberg looks more responsible defensively. That defensive edge might be the difference maker if he can at least match him offensively. Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne had magnificent first rounds, but with these two guys on the ice, I’m expecting some regression in round two. 

THN’s PICK:

PREDATORS in six games.

2017 Stanley Cup playoffs second-round preview: Penguins vs. Capitals

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By Matt Larkin – The Hockey News

THE PENGUINS WIN IF…

The Penguins are the NHL’s best team at sticking to a system. They play endlessly fast under coach Mike Sullivan, relying on their forwards’ superb wheels. Doing so means quick puck movement from the Pens’ defensemen, and that makes the team effective despite having no go-to blue liner right now. Kris Letang is out for the playoffs, yet the Pens ousted the NHL’s No. 6 offensive club in five games. As long as they follow their style, they can get by without Letang and rely on the veteran group of Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey. Every one of those blueliners except Hainsey played on the Pens’ 2015-16 championship squad, which eliminated the Capitals in Round 2.

And let’s face it: the Pens’ defense corps only has to be adequate. It’s the forwards pushing the play. Pittsburgh led the NHL regular season and the first round of the playoffs in goals per game. Not even probable Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky could handle the Pens’ blitz in Round 1, which included 11 points from Evgeni Malkin and the usual heroics from Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, but also some surprising contributions. The Pens just keep unearthing speedy, effective scoring wingers from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have duplicated last year’s success and then some – and Jake Guentzel enjoyed a coming-out party this season. After racking up 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games, he led the first round of the playoffs with five goals in five games. He became the first rookie since Rocket Richard to score five in his first four post-season contests.

The Penguins overwhelm their opponents with speed, and that’s scary news for the Washington Capitals. The Toronto Maple Leafs gave Washington quite a scare in Round 1, forcing a crazy-close series that included five overtime games and six one-goal games. How did Toronto do it? Wheels. The Leafs were at their best when moving their young, fleet feet and causing chaos. Toronto faltered when the jitters kicked in and caused the young group to stop skating and start watching Washington dominate down low. The Penguins are like a better, more mature, more experienced version of the Leafs. The Penguins play a similar style but won’t be intimidated by the Caps. They’re in Washington’s head, not the other way around. If the Leafs turned out to be a surprisingly dangerous match-up for the Caps, the Penguins are the Leafs on steroids. 

THE CAPITALS WIN IF…

Do we view the Capitals through an optimistic or pessimistic lens? If we choose the former, we see a team that got pushed to the brink in six consecutive nail-biter games, spent very few minutes of the series leading and still ground out four victories. Washington could’ve choked and instead delivered in the clutch more often than not, with three overtime wins, including a series-ender from Marcus Johansson after he tied the game in the latter half of the third period. Washington showed mental toughness.

The Caps also won the Presidents’ Trophy for a reason. They are hockey’s deepest, most complete all-around team. They have a clear advantage in goal with icy-nerved Braden Holtby. They have a powerhouse top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, plus great secondary scoring options in Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and, of course, Justin Williams, ‘Mr. Game 7.’ The bottom-six forward group boasts some big, heavy players, from Tom Wilson to Jay Beagle to shutdown center Lars Eller. The Caps forecheck as well as any team in the game, and that’s the one thing Columbus did pretty effectively against Pittsburgh in Round 1. Washington can hem a team in for many minutes at a time, as Toronto learned the hard way.

The Caps also enjoy a deep defense corps, even if Karl Alzner isn’t healthy enough to return yet. Matt Niskanen was particularly effective in Round 1, and speedy Nate Schmidt held his own replacing Alzner. Brooks Orpik and Kevin Shattenkirk struggled at times but are still an experienced pair that should iron out their game in time. All that and we haven’t mentioned John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. This is a loaded group. 

X-FACTOR:

Penguins: It doesn’t look like Matt Murray, who sustained a lower-body injury in the Game 1 warmup against Columbus, will return to the Penguins’ crease anytime soon. He hasn’t even resumed skating. That puts Pittsburgh’s fate in Marc-Andre Fleury’s hands again. ‘Flower’ flashed his early-career playoff form in Round 1, with a .933 save percentage against the Jackets, but what if the ugly recent-career playoff Fleury returns against Washington? Holtby gives Washington the edge in goal no matter what, but Fleury has to be at least average to keep the series competitive. If his game goes in the tank, it will change the series dramatically.

Capitals: Justin Williams is so universally revered as an X-Factor that he hardly qualifies as one anymore. He’s not a sleeper. Instead, watch out for Tom Wilson. Because he’s such a brute, 6-foot-4, 217 pounds and known for devastating hits on the forecheck, it’s easy to forget he was a first-round pick in 2012. Wilson can play. He showed that in Round 1 with three goals against the Leafs, earning himself a promotion to the third line from coach Barry Trotz. If Wilson can chip in some offense while putting licks on an already-weakened Penguins D-corps, look out. 

KEY MATCHUP:

The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry gets all the headlines, but the story of this series might come on the “second” line and that’s in name only as both teams pretty much have two first lines. That’s mostly because of the star centers on both sides, Evgeni Malkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’d be No. 1 guys on any other team. It’s an Evgeni(y) battle for the ages here, though Kuznetsov is really going to have to step up if he wants to match up to Malkin. He’s been a bit lackluster in the playoffs during his career and had just three points in the first round – nothing compared to Malkin’s 11. Neither is all that great at possessing the puck (though they’re unfairly penalized by being compared to superstar top lines), so it all comes down to production here where there’s a sizeable chasm between the two players. With deficiencies elsewhere throughout the lineups, this is one battle the Pens have to win as their forward depth is the only thing they’ve got on Washington. It starts here with Geno. Let’s see if he’s got some more playoff magic up his sleeve. (Dom Luszczyszyn

THN’S PICK:

PENGUINS in six games.

NHL playoffs: How the Canadian teams stack up in Round 2

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By Tim Wharnsby – CBC Sports

Ottawa vs. New York Rangers

This series will be low scoring. Both teams play patient, defensive-oriented systems … The Senators and Rangers swapped key centers last July, with Ottawa sending Mika Zibanejad to Broadway in exchange for Derick Brassard. Both were impactful in the first round. Zibanejad scored the overtime winner in Game 5 of the Rangers’ six-game series against Montreal, while Brassard continued his outstanding playoff legacy with two goals and eight points to lead the Senators in their six-game win against the Boston Bruins … A big concern for the Senators will be how veteran defenceman Dion Phaneuf will deal with the Rangers’ team speed … A big concern for the Rangers has to be their leading goal scorer, Chris Kreider. Although he helped set up Zibanejad’s winner, Kreider had no goals and only 11 shots on goal against the Habs … Senators captain Erik Karlsson and Joel Lundqvist, the twin brother of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, were briefly teammates with Frolunda HC in Sweden during the 2012-13 lockout season … When Senators associate coach Marc Crawford was fired as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks after the 2005-06 season, his replacement was Alain Vigneault, who was coaching the Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Winnipeg … It’s difficult not to pull for the Senators and the feel-good stories of goalie Craig Anderson, whose wife battled a rare form of throat cancer this season, and Clarke MacArthur, who successfully returned to action after 18 months on the sidelines with concussion problems.

Player to watch: After an unproductive 13-goal regular season — his lowest output in a non-lockout-shortened regular season — Senators right wing Bobby Ryan has come to play in the playoffs, with four goals, including two game winners, in the first round. Ottawa needs Ryan to continue to produce.

Prediction: Rangers in seven. They have an unrelenting, four-line, grind-it-out mentality that works in the playoffs, plus strong goaltending and speed that can turn a mistake into a goal, and on many occasions a goal is all New York needs with Lundqvist in net.

Anaheim vs. Edmonton

The Ducks are red hot. They finished the regular season with four wins and opened the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Flames. The last time they suffered a loss was a 3-2 overtime defeat to the Oilers on April 1, when Leon Draisaitl scored 86 seconds into the extra period off a Connor McDavid pass … Draisaitl scored six times in five regular-season outings against the Ducks … When Draisaitl played junior in Prince Albert, his assistant coach was former NHL defenceman Dave Manson. Manson’s son Josh is a Ducks defenceman … Oilers goalie Cam Talbot is showing no signs of slowing down after his league-leading 73 starts and team-record 42 wins. He improved his .919 regular-season save percentage to .927 with two shutouts in the first round … Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf picked up his play in the second half with 11 goals and 44 points in his final 40 games and continued to produce in the playoffs with two goals and five points in four first-round games … The Ducks could get back two of their top defencemen in this series. Cam Fowler has been out with a knee injury and Sami Vatanen suffered an upper-body ailment in the Ducks’ opener against Calgary … Oilers forward Patrick Maroon will have some motivation. The Ducks gave up on him and traded him to Edmonton on Feb 29, 2016. All he did was score six times in 16 playoff games for the Ducks in 2015 … Can Ducks rookie Shea Theodore continue to turn heads after his two goals and five points in the first round? … Theodore, and Edmonton’s McDavid and Darnell Nurse were teammates on Canada’s 2015 gold-medal-winning junior team.

Player to watch: Edmonton second-line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has to step up. McDavid is going to receive heavy attention from Anaheim’s defensive nuisance Ryan Kesler. Nugent-Hopkins needs to produce to give the Oilers a chance in this series. He led Edmonton with 17 shots on goal in the first round, but was held without a point and had a plus-minus rating of minus-one.

Prediction: Anaheim in six. It’s hard to bet against a team that has Getzlaf and Corey Perry leading the way and has gone a combined 15-0-3 in its last 14 regular-season games and four playoff outings.

Lithuania goalie leads new generation

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By Andy Pots – IIHF.com

Goalie Artur Pavliukov, aged just 20, has been a big part of that roster. In those victories over Estonia and the Netherlands he’s turned away 30 shots to provide the platform for his country’s winning start. It’s turning into a fine conclusion to a long and sometimes complicated season for the Lake Tahoe Icemen net minder.

The 2016-17 campaign saw Pavliukov head to North America for the first time in his career. Whatever expectations he had when he flew across the Atlantic, the subsequent year brought far more than he anticipated.

“It’s definitely been different for me this season – I went to four different clubs!” he said. That journey began in the NAHL with Coulee Region Chill, then took in a short stint at La Crosse Freeze in NA3HL. Next came WSHL hockey with the El Paso Rhinos in regular season before finally arriving in Lake Tahoe for the playoffs. “It feels like I traveled through the whole of the US.”

While the schedule was sometimes difficult, the experience was valuable. “It’s a different kind of hockey there,” Pavliukov said. “The rinks are much smaller so as a goalie you know you’ll face a lot of shots. I’m sure that I’m developing a lot better as a player for being in North America.”

Player development is a big issue for Lithuania, with opportunities at home very limited. In the words of head coach Bernd Haake, any young player wanting to achieve a high standard has no option but to leave the country and seek a chance elsewhere. The roster in Belfast offers a roll-call of Europe’s mid-ranking leagues. Fortunately, that pressure to travel and explore the hockey-playing world is something that Pavliukov has always relished.

“I’ve been traveling for my hockey since I was about 14,” he said, reflecting on seasons spent playing in the Belarusian and Latvian league systems and representing his country at u18, u20 and senior level in World Championships and Olympic Qualifiers. “This was the first time I went so far from home, but it wasn’t all that difficult to adjust. Luckily, I really like to travel, I love seeing new places so it was kind of an adventure.”

Belfast is a new stop on that voyage, and Pavliukov hopes that the final destination might prove to be promotion. Lithuania has medalled in the last two World Championships and picked up wins against the likes of Great Britain and Ukraine along the way. The young goalie was part of the team that claimed bronze in Zagreb 12 months ago before helping the under-20s win Division 2A in Tallinn earlier this season. Now he is eager to grab more hardware here despite icing the youngster roster in the group with an average age of 24.

“It’s not that we are a young team, I think it’s a balance between youngsters and veteran players,” he said. “We have good speed all over the ice, and that gives us a good chance to compete for medals. In a competition like this, any team has a chance of promotion. It’s a matter of conditioning, of coaching, of getting it all together. Whoever gets it right this week will win the tournament.”

Part of the reason for Lithuania’s rock-solid rearguard thus far has been the calming presence of captain Mindaugas Kieras. On a youthful roster, his 19 World Championship campaigns makes him an example for others to follow as the Baltic nation looks to move from one generation to the next.

“He’s a great guy in the locker room and he’s like the bridge between us young players and the coaches. He helps everyone, the young guys and even the other veterans. We love having him around.”
That blend of experience and youth faces its latest test against Great Britain on Wednesday evening – the start of what coach Haake describes as a series of meetings with the ‘big teams’ in Division IB. And with Pavliukov in red-hot form, there’s every reason for the Baltic nation to hope to upset the host nation and blow the promotion race wide open.

How the coaching staff in Frölunda is handling Rasmus Dahlin’s development

By

If there has been a breakout story in the SHL this season it is the rise of young defenceman Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin turned 17 last week, ending his run as the best 16-year-old hockey player in the world and starting his year as the best 17-year-old.

“I have coached many, many good young players, in both club and national teams,” says Frölunda HC head coach Roger Rönnberg, “and Rasmus is most certainly among the top defenders of those teams.”

Mr. Rönnberg’s assistant and defensive coach in Frölunda, Mr. Pär Johansson, says with a smile, “there is no limit in how good he can become; no limit whatsoever. The amount of skills that Dahlin already possesses is incredible.”

Much has been said about his physique and his skating, but the first thing that comes to Mr. Johansson’s mind is his understanding of the game and his vision. “He does things no one else sees. Not even full-blooded pros have seen that particular solution when he has. He is ahead of the game in many ways. He has so many skills, but that one stands out.”

Even if Dahlin stands tall when being interviewed, everyone keeps saying that he needs to grow his stature and frame.

“This summer is super important,” states Mr. Johansson. “He has been to camps before, but this is his first summer with a proper individual build-up for next season. While he will never be a Shea Weber kind of player, frame-wise, he has to bulk up a bit all over his body. Right now he manages a lot of his defensive responsibilities thanks to his outstanding balance.”

With five points (3G, 2A) in 14 playoff games with Frölunda, what stood out this year was the time in the World Junior Hockey Championship that put everyone’s eyes on the Swedish talent. He became the youngest Swedush player ever to suit up for the WJC.

Mr. Johansson chose his words carefully when asked if he would characterize Dahlin’s play as arrogant or a form of hubris. “I would never say that; I would call it the naïvety of youth, or maybe enthusiasm of youth. He oozes the thought ‘I can do this.’

“You have to remember that’s the thing we pay for when watching hockey. Then everyone goes bonkers when he succeeds and the same people turn on him as soon as he makes a mistake. You can’t have it both ways.”

When it comes to Dahlin’s progress during the season Mr. Johansson is quick to point out “there are more and more successful things compared to the unsuccessful things right now. He knows the difference of when he can try things, and when he can’t try the same thing.”

Dahlin is a work in progress, and Mr. Johansson treads carefully in working with the raw diamond in his hands. “We are pushing him every day to try things, but also to learn from his mistakes. He has scored three goals this playoff run, and he hasn’t cost us more than three; that means he’s still on the plus side of things. That’s all we can ask for since he is good for the team.”

Coach Rönnberg is in the same boat as Mr. Johansson, and the Frölunda spirit shows through. He knows his role and his vision is clear. ”We are here to educate players. That means I want to support them in the things they do. Of course, if things happen at the wrong moments or a few too many times, then I step on the brakes. But if he wants to deke someone in the offensive zone then he has to do that, and it is up to an attacker to cover Dahlin’s “normal” position.

“It’s a team effort and the upside that a player such as Dahlin brings, you have to use it.” It is a balancing act especially during the playoffs, but as Mr. Johansson says, so far it has worked out on the plus side for Dahlin.

To speed up and further the education, the day after a game is usually spent with the master and student watching every shift played on video going over strengths and weaknesses during the previous match.

When Dahlin steps off the ice after practice, the first thing that hits me is how tall he is, already standing 6’1” without skates. It’s the day after Game Five in the best-of-seven semifinal against Brynäs, a game Frölunda won. Brynäs eventually took the series in seven games, and is currently playing in the final against HV71.

“Playoffs!” says Dahlin with a smile. “They are great. You have a bad period every now and then, but both teams were struggling last night during the first period.”

Dahlin has made an impact and the previous night he scored another goal. When asked about what has changed for him during the playoffs, he answers without hesitation. “I have gained confidence throughout the playoffs, and I have matured a lot. The physique will have to wait until summer, hence right now it is the development of my game that has changed the most.

“My position game in the defensive zone and the defensive side of things overall is where I have improved a lot, and of course mentally. But it has also been a huge change how to prepare yourself before a game; what to do in difficult situations during the game to get maximum output every game. Eat, sleep, practice. Offensive play too. The work I do with Pär [Johansson] helps me on both sides of the puck.”

When asked to describe himself for the North American crowd that has only seen him in the World Junior Championship he says, “I try to be a two-way defender with an offensive upside [understatement of the year]. I am a bit more offensively inclined than defensively. Now, during the playoffs, I am more of the offensive guy on my pairing, but when it comes to it I will do what the coach tells me to do.”

One thing that has surprised a lot of people around hockey in Sweden is how well the 165-pound defender has adjusted to playoff hockey, which is usually a fair bit more physical than the grind of league play. Dahlin had three points (1G, 2A) in 26 games and has already surpassed that in game 11 of the playoffs.

It is his physical play that has surprised many. Speaking about the upcoming summer Dahlin offers up his thoughts and this own explanation to why he isn’t as big as he could be.

“I have practised hard all summer before, but I hadn’t really entered puberty so I haven’t been able to build up muscle the way that I have needed. It will be important this summer to build up my muscle mass a bit.

“I am looking forward to summer training. Maybe I shouldn’t,” he adds with a laugh. “Really, I am looking forward to it, you want to improve and this is the first step to do it.”

The answer is no surprise when asked whether he has a favourite team or player in the NHL. “I am looking more towards the stars over there, rather than a particular team. My favorite player is Erik Karlsson hands down.”

When it comes to the NHL team that drafts Rasmus Dahlin, you have to remember that he will never be a bruising type of player. He isn’t the big, stable defender. Dahlin’s upside lies in his offensive play and any team that selects him would do well to use Frölunda’s way of thinking: as long as he is generating more goals than he causes due to his sometimes naïve play, the team will benefit from his presence.

It will be interesting to see his next steps in Frölunda and the SHL next season, because it will undoubtedly be the last spent in Europe for a long time.

The next step has already been achieved. When Frölunda got knocked out of the playoffs, Dahlin wasn’t called in to join his fellow teenagers for the Under-18 World Championship; he was called up for the friendly games for the National Men’s Team against Belarus.

“It’s a dream come true,” he told the Gothenburg Post about the honour. “I haven’t really understood it yet.”

For the young phemon, you have to believe that his experience on the international stage is just beginning.

Tower in Korea’s defence

By Martin Merk IIHF.com

In 2007 Edmonton drafted Alex Plante in the first round, so playing international hockey isn’t a surprise. Just that his debut came 10 years later – with Korea.

The two-metre (6′7″) defenceman is not your typical Asia League player. Korea’s answer to Zdeno Chara stands out in size and he’s one of few players in league history with NHL experience even though he didn’t have his breakthrough in the NHL playing 10 games for the Edmonton Oilers in his four years in the organization.

After not getting the chance in the big league, he took in 2013 the path his father Cam had taken about 30 years earlier and moved from the AHL to Austria. After one season with Dornbirner EC he moved to Norway where he played one season with his brother, goalie Tyler Plante, for Lorenskog. Then he suddenly landed at Anyang Halla, Korea’s top club team in the Asia League, where he completed his second season and won the title earlier this month.

“I just signed a two-year deal with Anyang Halla. We’ve had a couple of good years there, we won the [Asia League] championship, the organization has been great, we absolutely love it,” Plante said about his experience.

Korea has made a name for itself in recent years for naturalizing players from its Asia League clubs and Plante is the newest addition. He missed the 2017 Asian Winter Games but got Korean citizenship one month ago and fulfilled the eligibility criteria after two seasons in Korea.

With goaltender Matt Dalton – arguably the most important addition last year – defencemen Plante, Eric Regan and Bryan Young as well as forward Michael Swift the Koreans have five Canada-born players on the roster. And that line-up doesn’t include forwards Brock Radunske and American-born Mike Testwuide, who missed out on the tournament this year due to injury. Add to that NHL experience behind the bench with Jim Paek and Richard Park, who were born in Korea but grew up and played in the United States and one can easily see that the ambitions are high one year before Korea hosts the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

Since 2015 Plante lives in Anyang, a satellite city of Seoul. “It took time to adjust but we have nothing than good things to say, we feel safe. We have a nice little community and fan base and the club itself treats us very well. There was a little risk since we had no idea where we’re getting ourselves into but it definitely paid off,” Plante said about his decision. “The language itself has been a challenge, maybe some words I learned on the road. Basic words and locker room banter so far. The longer we’re there, the more we pick up.”

One word he learned is chamchi gimbap, which he calls his favourite Korean food. “It’s a little roll that has tuna, and, I can’t name all the stuff that’s inside, it looks like a reversed sushi. It’s traditional snack food in Korea but I can’t get enough of it,” he said.

Knowing about the Koreans’ desire to have him join the national team, he already played exhibition games with them before actually getting his passport.

“I’ve done it all year now with the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge and stuff like that. I look at this like I’m thankful to have this opportunity. It was a bit different in the beginning but I’ve been in Korea for two years, it’s been a great family for myself, my kids and my wife,” he said.

“Alex Plante has been a good addition to us,” said head coach Paek. “He has a big body and a lot of game experience, international and North American experience. That’s very good for us. He’s a leader on the team and becoming an important part.”

“The tournament gets harder and harder. Every game is a championship game. Our players work extremely hard. They’re a dream to the coach because they listened to the coach. I have to give all the credit to them. They try to get better all the time,” the coach added.

Korea improved over the last few years. Thanks but not only because of its imports because other players got better too. The first two offensive lines are made of native Koreans including Sanghoon Shin and Kisung Kim, the scoring leader and the top goal scorer of the Asia League playoffs respectively.

Although the team just ended up in fifth place in last year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Katowice with tight standings, it was in contention for promotion until the very last day when losing the spot in the top division to Italy after a 2-1 loss against the Azzurri.

This year the team started well with two wins including the first-ever victory of Korea against Kazakhstan.

“It’s my first Worlds, I didn’t know that we wrote history. I’m just happy to be part of it. We just keep finding ways to get the bounces and to get them in. We’re going to enjoy this for a couple of minutes and then get ready for the next one. It’s a short tournament and we have to move on,” he said after scoring two goals in the victory against Kazakhstan.

“There’s no secret to success. We got systems in place we try to stick to as much as we can. It’s hard work and determination and the bounces went our way. We have a great goaltender, we definitely cannot forget about him, he gave us more than enough opportunities to get a win in both of these games. He’s been a huge piece for us and I hope we can help him out a little bit more.”

The word promotion wasn’t heard that often but the slogan hanging in front of the locker room is “Make Korea proud”.

“We came with the expectation to compete every night and let the results take care for themselves. The nation continues to get better. We’re getting more consistent, have more depth. It’s all new for me so I’m just here to enjoy and help as much as I can. Our goal as a country is to get better and better,” he said. “Ideally of course everybody would love to go up but we’re focusing period by period.”

The next period comes soon. After beating one of the two teams that came down from the top division, they will play the next one today, Hungary, at 17:00 local time (16:00 in Hungary, 23:00 in Korea).

The current road clearly goes to PyeongChang 2018 where Korea wants to be competitive against nations that are even higher ranked than the ones here. They’re seeded in a group with defending champion Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

“It’s our big goal but we’re looking now where we are at. It’s in the back of our mind. This tournament here is a step to competing at the Olympics,” he said.

And if Korea continues to play well here in Kyiv, they may play at the top level next year not only as the host at the Olympics but also as one of the teams promoted to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Denmark.

Lebanon Beats Haiti for Historic First International Victory

By Steve Ellis – Eurohockey.com

Lebanon can officially join the history books thanks to a historic debut victory over Haiti in Raymond Bourque Arena in Saint-Laurent, Quebec on Sunday evening.

The game was the first official international competition for both of the teams. Lebanon did play their first ever hockey game a week ago against Maghreb United, who were made up of players from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Lebanon took the 8-3 victory in that game, giving them their first win of any type.

On Sunday, both teams took to the ice for the first time, with Haiti sporting Georges Laraque in the one-off event. Lebanon would get the best of their opponents, taking the 7-4 victory in the process.

While long-term plans for Haiti’s ice hockey team are unknown, Lebanon is hoping to play some teams in the future. Coach Ralph Melki told Euro Hockey that Israel, Egypt and Morocco have all inquired about playing Lebanon in future exhibition games, but nothing has been firmed up.

Video footage of the end of the game can be found here.

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