Date: April 26, 2017

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.