Day: September 1, 2016

Olympic Qualification Group F day 1 recap

By Risto Pakarinen –

France squeaks by Italy

France outshot Italy 31-24 in the game and dominated the play for long periods at a time but could only beat Italy’s goaltender Andreas Bernard once in regulation time. Stephane da Costa won the game for France with his shot just 26 seconds into the overtime.

Veteran goaltender Cristobal Huet made 23 saves for France.

“I just thought, ‘finally’, when I saw the shot go in,” said France’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who picked up an assist to the goal.

“We had several chances but couldn’t capitalize on them but we found a way to win the game. In the Worlds, we’re the underdog but now we had to carry the game and we got a little tired in the second period,” he added.

On the back of the French team practice jerseys it says, “tous ensemble pour 2017”, a call for action for the 2017 World Championship that will be held in Paris and Cologne. Paris will be hosting the tournament for the first time since 1951, and qualifying for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang in South Korea would certainly help keep the game in the spotlight. 

But for that, they need to win their qualification group in Oslo.

“Four years ago, we only had a couple of days to prepare and found ourselves down by two goals after the first five minutes in our first game. It all comes down to details,” Team France coach Dave Henderson told after the team’s morning skate.

In their first game in Oslo, they looked nervous during the first five minutes but Italy couldn’t score early on and the longer the period went, the more France took over the game. They started to find the opening in Italy’s defense in the neutral zone and could send long passes through it, creating several good chances. However, Andreas Bernard in Italy’s goal was excellent.

Early in the second period, Jordan Perrett received a major penalty for checking from behind when he pushed an Italian defenseman into the glass behind Italy’s net. Halfway through the powerplay, the Kostner brothers found an opening. Simon Kostner passed the puck from the corner to Diego, who took a few strides towards the French net and shot the puck in through Cristobal Huet’s five-hole to give Italy the lead in the game 3.20 into the period.

France could tie the game just 2.20 later when Kevin Hecquefeuille found Florian Chakiachvili open in the slot. Chakiachvili turned and fired the puck past Bernard with a hard wrist shot.

Italy defended with a lot of heart and managed to keep France on the outside, making it easier for Bernard to turn away the shots that came all the way to his net.

“It went according to our plan. They had some great chances in the second period, but we defended really well,” said Italy’s goaltender Bernard. 

France never got the big push it would have needed and the game ended in a 1-1 tie in regulation time. The 3-on-3 overtime was just 27 seconds old when da Costa fired his shot topshelf, ending the game

“It’s the win that counts, I don’t think this [lost point] will matter, especially if we keep our focus in the next game,” said Bellemare.

Kazakhstan shocks the hosts

It was supposed to be a big Norwegian party at the old Jordal Amfi but apaprently, nobody told told Kazakhstan that and they pushed the hosts to their heels. In the last 1.17 Norway rallied back from 3-1 to tie the game and take it to OT. 

In the first shift of the 3-on-3 overtime, though, Kazakhstan’s Brandon Bochenski scored the game-winner. 

“It’s in the details. They played a good game and capitalized on their chances,” said Norway’s captain Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. 

Norway outshot Kazakhstan 9-5 in the first period, out-chanced them 5-0 and dominated the game for long periods at a time but Kazakhstan – whose team consists of only Barys Astana’s players – played smart and kept Norway on the outside, blocking the shots from the point and let goaltender Vitali Kolesnik take care of the rest. 

“We controlled the puck, but there were too many puck races, and they had practically a five-man box in front of the net,” said Norway’s defenseman Jonas Holos. 

Norway’s first line with Patrick Thoresen – son of head coach Petter Thoresen -, Anders Bastiansen, and Mats Zuccarello carried the play and created several chances but couldn’t beat Kolesnik. 

Whatever plans Norway had for the second, they surely didn’t include Kazakhstan scoring but that’s what happened. Just 1.23 into the period Yevgeny Rymarev went around Norway’s net, and passed it behind his back, fooling both the Norwegian defenseman in front of the net and goaltender Lars Haugen so that Roman Starchenko saw nothing but the net and could score easily. 

“It was unfortunate that they got the first goal and that we had to chase them,” Holos said. 

Norway paid it back, though, 2.25 later when Bastiansen sent a backhanded pass to Mats Zuccarello who ied the game with a wrist shot from a sharp angle. 

Norway outshot Kazakhstan 20-10 in the second period, and except for the early Kazakh powerplay, the puck stayed mostly in the Kazakhstan zone. However, at 11.27 into the period, Nikita Ivanov won a faceoff in Norway’s zone, sent the puck to Kevin Dallman at the point, and his shot floated in through a lot of traffic in front of Haugen. 

Three minutes later Starchenko scored his second of the night when he won a race to the puck and his wrister from a sharp angle found its way to the back of the net. Norway had their chance to get back into the game thanks to two Kazakhstan penalties at the end of the period, but they couldn’t beat Kolesnik. 

The hosts got another powerplay opportunity to start the third period, but Norway couldn’t figure out a way to get to the best scoring areas even when Kazakhstan had just four skaters on the ice. Norway was 0-for-4 on powerplay tonight. 

Six minutes into the period, Kolesnik hurt his leg making a save. He left the ice in obvious pain and Dmitri Malgin took his place between the pipes. 

Then Norway got into some penalty trouble, and Kazakhstan go to play a minute and 50 seconds with a two-man advantage but couldn’t extend their lead.

With 1.17 remaining, Holos made it a one-goal game with a slap shot from the point. Then, with 14 secinds remaining, Bastiansen re-directed Zuccarello’s hard pass to the back of the net to tie the game. 

Then, just a few minutes later, Norway came crashing down from the highest of highs.

“Of course, first there was the enormous happiness and then a minute later, the biggest disappointment. But we still have a good atmosphere in the dressing room,” Holos said. 

Jordal Amfi, the arena, was originally built for the 1952 Olympics, as an outdoor arena, and it’s served Norwegian hockey well and the idea was to have the arena do one last Olympic favor by sending this team to the 2018 Olympics before it’s demolished in 2017. 

The Norwegian Olympic dreams aren’t dead yet, but the wrecking ball is already waiting outside.

“We have a new game tomorrow, let’s see what happens in the other games,” Tollefsen said. 

“We’ll try to win our game and then hope that France cam take points from Kazakhstan so that we’ll have a final against France on Sunday,” Holos added. 


Olympic Qualification Group E day 1 recap

By Martin Merk –

German goal fest

The Japanese are not the favourite here but didn’t come to Riga to be a pushover. In the first game against Germany that was easier said than done though in a clash between two countries that are separated by 11 places in the World Ranking. Having seven NHL players on the German roster didn’t make it easier for the Asians either.

“They have a lot of skill, it was very hard,” said Yuki Miura, “but we didn’t give up.”

The Germans needed less than four minutes to open the scoring. Brooks Macek capitalized in front of the net after a diagonal pass to the crease from Leon Draisaitl at 3:26.

With 2:38 left in the period and Takeshi Saito in the penalty box, Patrick Hager sent a shot from the face-off circle after a drop pass from Tobias Rieder. Florian Schutz screened Japanese goalie Yutaka Fukufuji and deflected the puck but didn’t interfere the goalie in the crease as the video review showed. It was one of two goals for him.

“It’s never easy to win a game despite them probably not playing at the same level like us in European leagues. But they can play too and made it difficult at the beginning. After the first goals it became easier for us,” Schutz said.

Germany scored three of the five goals on power plays and outshot Japan 51-13. Early in the middle frame Tobias Rieder added another marker after a horizontal pass from Leon Draisaitl to make it 3-0 for the black-and-yellow team. With the next power play Tom Kuhnhackl increased it to a four-goal lead. Schutz followed suit on a rebound during the next man advantage for the Germans forcing Japan head coach Greg Thomson to use his time-out. For the last period he replaced Fukufuji with Takuto Onoda in the net.

For the Germans the high-score game was a good opportunity to gel together with the new players on the team.

“Most of the NHL players were already with us at the World Championship except for two who are new but we know each other and it’s great for German hockey they can play here with us,” Schutz said. “It’s noticeable that they’re playing at the highest level.”

The Germans will continue tomorrow against Austria and on Sunday against host Latvia. Last time in the Olympic Qualification Austria succeeded against Germany to qualify for Sochi 2014.

“The score [against Japan] has no meaning for the next games. Austria is at par with us, we didn’t succeed against them last time. It will be the two most important games of the year for us. We feel great and have self-confidence,” said Schutz.

Out skated, out shot, outscored

It was an unusually high score considering that Latvia needed overtime to beat Austria at their last World Championship game in 2015 and even lost 6-3 in 2013.

Seven different scorers netted the puck for Latvia led by Kaspars Daugavins with two goals and an assist.

“The score didn’t show the real game. They’re a way better team. They played hard at the start and we were lucky when we needed to get lucky to score the third and fourth goal, which changed the game, after that it was just like pond hockey going back and forth,” summarized Daugavins.

It was not like the Austrians were without chances in Riga. The hosts allowed them to come into the game in the beginning and were hospitable enough to play Austrian folk music during one or the other game stoppage. A strong Kristers Gudlevskis with 22 saves in the net prevented the Austrians from taking the lead in the first period while the Latvians widened the gap with six unanswered goals in the second and third period.

“20 minutes is not enough. We were pretty okay in the first period, we were in the game, we actually had more shots than Latvia in the first period but then we didn’t come up anymore and Latvia played well defensively. Our game broke down badly,” Austria head coach Alpo Suhonen analyzed.

“We had two goalies here who are both backup goalies on their club teams but we hope they are developing. We need a couple of more goalies. They didn’t play bad but one or the other goal could have been prevented.”

It was a game the Austrians could have needed their best goalie Bernhard Starkbaum, who didn’t travel to Riga after becoming father. The Austrians started into the game wanting more. They had more puck possession in the beginning of the game but it was the hosts who opened the scoring on a Daugavins shot at 5:41.

In the following minutes the Austrians had two power plays and some scoring chances but no luck in front of Gudlevskis’ net. They didn’t score and even conceded a shorthanded goal. Lauris Darzins left for a breakaway. He lost the puck against a defender in the offensive zone but Andris Dzerins got it and beat Austrian goalie David Kickert top-shelf.

With 3:21 left Thomas Hundertpfund brought Austria onto the scoreboard and new hope, which was destroyed in the second period.

After a face-off won by Zemgus Girgensons, Roberts Bukarts sent off a shot top-right to restore the two-goal lead. Captain Daugavins even made it 4-1 after accepting a horizontal pass in the middle of the offensive zone to beat Kickert just two-and-a-half minutes after the last marker.

With 2:22 left Kristaps Sotnieks missed on a breakaway when coming out from the penalty box but one minute later Ronalds Kenins concluded a 2-on-1 with the 5-1 goal before the second intermission.

Austria changed goaltenders for the third period but to no avail as the scoring didn’t end there. At 3:57 Miks Indrasis shoveled the puck on the left side around David Madlener while falling to make it a five-goal gap. Martins Dzierkals added another marker with his shot from close to the net just two minutes later and in the dying minutes of the game Rodrigo Abols used his chance to land on the scoreboard too after a fast attack for the final score of 8-1.

With the result Austria reduced its chances of returning to the Olympics to virtually zero while the Latvians are full of hope before tomorrow’s game with Japan.

“We have a short time to rest against Japan. We need good sleep tonight, good food, come out tomorrow and play our best to improve a little bit every game because we know the key game will be in three days,” Daugavins said. “[Germany] is the best team here right now on paper so we know they’re really good and have a lot of NHL player but we’re going to give them a battle, that’s for sure.”


Olympic Qualification Group D day 1 recap


Denmark loses in an upset to Belarus

Nicklas Jensen scored a goal at 2:46 of the first period, a fast start to the game. Red Wings center and Denmark’s captain Frans Nielsen was on the ice for the goal but did not get an assist. Mikkel Boedker did, though. Denmark didn’t let off the gas after that, keeping the play in the Belarus zone.  Mikkel Boedker skated through the Belarus team, and into the Belarus goalie while trying to score. The Belarus goalie, Lalonde ended up staying in the game, the Belarusian crowd cheering that he’s good to go. The play has intensified as both teams try to outmuscle each other.  Belarus scored on a 3-1, thanks to winning a battle on the boards against Denmark. The game is tied 1-1 in the first, the goal scored at 11:50 of the first period by Alexander Pavlovich.  Artyom Volkov  scores a shorthanded goal for Belarus, 2-1 Belarus at 17:08 of the first period. The favorited Denmark is down 2-1 after the first period of play. The shots are 10-7 Denmark after one.  Andersen looked rusty in goal, his lateral movement not up to speed.

Belarus started the 2nd period off with a scoring chance a minute and a half in. Belarus followed that up with a shot off the post that triggered the goal light. The replay showed just how close that shot was.  Denmark forward Jesper B. Jensen gave a nasty hit to Belarus forward Artur Gavrus. A Danish forward was injured after that, Morten Madsen was hit by Alexander Pavlovich.  It’s become a bit of a track meet after those hits. Scoring chances are being traded either way,  but no goals and plenty of physical play. Denmark’s power play involves a lot of puck movement, but Belarus killed off a penalty, that ended around the 2:10 left mark of the 2nd period. The Danes kept the puck in the zone and the pressure was on Belarus, but Nicklas Jensen takes a slashing penalty. Artur Gavrus makes it a 4 on 4 for the remainder of the second period in what has been an exciting game. The score remains 2-1 Belarus after two. The Danes will need to surge back in the third to avoid an upset.

Belarus puts the game away

Denmark started off the third period with having to kill off a penalty, starting about two minutes into the period. After a ferocious scramble in front of the net, Sergei Kostitsyn scores to put the Belarusians ahead 3-1! The play was reviewed, and it is a goal for Belarus. The Danes are on the verge of being upset! In 2014 they lost after being favored against Slovenia, now it’s looking like that fate will repeat itself for Denmark. At 8:24 into the third period, Danish forward Nikolaj Ehlers had a nice scoring chance. Tempers are starting to flare midway through the third period as a scrum breaks out. Andrei Stas makes it 4-1 for Belarus, who looks to have an upset over Denmark secured. Stas scored at the 53:17 mark from Geoff Platt. Mikkel Boedker goes to the box during a power play for Denmark after getting involved in a scrum as well as another Belarusian player. Andrei Stas got two for Checking from Behind as well as a ten-minute misconduct while Boedker got a two-minute minor for roughing. Jannik Hansen scores for Denmark, making it 4-2 at the 58:41 mark. Assists come from Nikolaj Ehlers and Frans Nielsen. Too little too late for Denmark as Belarus seals the upset with an empty netter from Sergei Kostitsyn at the 59:24 mark, Belarus wins 5-2.

Denmark just wasn’t able to overcome a motivated Belarus team. Denmark’s stars started to shine too late into the game. Ehlers, Nielsen and Boedker all had one assist. Jannik Hansen and Nicklas Jensen had the goals.  Although Nikolaj Ehlers and Boedker had chances among others, they were unable to add to the score. Sergei Kostitsyn, Andrei Stas, and Alexander Pavlovich led the way for Belarus. Frederik Andersen was very shaky in goal for Denmark, which was unexpected. It looks like Denmark will yet again miss out on the Olympics in 2018 due to this loss.

Slovenia overpowers Poland

By Henrik Manninen –

A goal in each period by the NHL star saw Poland emphatically toppled 6-1. Another of Slovenia’s big hitters, Jan Mursak contributed with 1+1 while Blaz Gregorc and Ken Ograjensek both recorded two helpers.

Poland who last featured at the Olympic Winter games in Alberville 1992 can look back at an afternoon they soon want to forget with Krystian Dziubinski scoring Poland’s sole marker with 2:48 left of the game.

Slovenia, who made their first appearance at an Olympic ice hockey tournament in Sochi two years ago, top Group D for a place in PyeongChang 2018 after their bright opening day performance.

“Our goal was to win the game, but it is only one win and tomorrow is a new game,” said Slovenia’s head coach Nik Zupancic trying to keep lid on expectations for what is to come.

Poland who entered the Group D as the lowest ranked teams in Minsk, had their game plan clearly set out ahead of their game.

“We tried to play as hard as we could with the key for us not to give up any goals, and surprise with one or two ourselves,” said Poland’s defenceman Adam Borzecki.

“But we were perhaps a bit too open against a really strong team and we made a couple of mistakes and it cost us goals as they capitalised on their chances.”

Poland’s game plan held out until 4:10 left of the first frame. During their third consecutive minor penalty, Kopitar stepped up to convert a rebound to open the scoring. Before the period was over Roc Ticar combined with Ziga Jeglic, with the latter doubling Slovenia’s lead at 17:38.

In the previous meeting between the two teams, played at the end of April at the 2016 World Championship Division IA, Poland prevailed thanks to a strong second period showing as they rallied back to 4-1 win.

This time around, Slovenia proved to be a different propositon. Mursak, one of Slovenia’s returning stars, picked up the puck from his own defensive zone and surged ahead to beat Przemyslaw Odrobny in Poland’s net with a backhand for Slovenia’s third. At 24:46 Kopitar added Slovenia’s unanswered fourth and before the middle frame was over a top drawer finished by Ales Kranjc had made it 5-0.

The teams had barely got out of the ice for the final frame when Slovenia wasted little time to add a sixth unanswered goal as Kopitar completed his hat-trick with an emphatic low strike.

With the game already well dead and buried, Kroselj’s shutout big held out until 2:48 to go when a Pawel Dronia looping pass from defensive zone, saw Dziubinski race clear to hit home high past Slovenia’s netminder.

As Poland look to lick their wounds and aim for an improved performance against hosts Belarus tomorrow evening, Denmark awaits for Slovenia. For Zupancic, it is Denmark who will enter tomorrow’s battle feeling the height of expectations.

“Denmark are a really creative team who play with a lot of passion and a lot of skill. In my opinion the favourite of this tournament,” he said.

World Cup of Hockey summer check-in: Team Europe

By Mark Spector – Sportsnet

So they opted to cap this new-look tournament at eight teams, and organizers dearly wanted to include Team North America, the collection of Under-23 players from Canada and the United States. That meant one more spot for players from “the rest of Europe”—those countries that are not Russia, Sweden, Finland or the Czech Republic.

Meet Team Europe, a collection of hockey vagabonds from across the European hockey map who have been cobbled together to round out this field, under European/former NHL coach Ralph Krueger and assistant Paul Maurice of the Winnipeg Jets.

Sure, this squad will garner more interest than watching Switzerland hang on to a 1-0 victory, or Latvia gamely trying not to get smoked 7-0 by Canada. But the question lies in how these 23 players will gel, coming from so many different hockey cultures. Odds makers will rank this team eighth in an eight-team field.

Training camp sites: Videotron Centre, Quebec City, Sept. 5-8; Bell Centre, Montreal, Sept. 9-12; Verizon Center, Washington, Sept. 13-14.

Team captain: TBD
Assistant captains: TBD

Front-office refresher:
GM: Miroslav Satan
Head coach: Ralph Krueger
Other Staff: Franz Reindl (president/team leader); Paul Maurice, Brad Shaw (assistant coaches); Peter Bondra, Sean Burke, Lorne Henning, Vaclav Nedomansky, Ricky Olczyk (scouting staff).

Injury concerns:

Tobias Rieder hurt his left knee when he collided with Canada’s Corey Perry at the World Championship in May, but has healed up and is ready to go.

Zdeno Chara, at age 39, just put in his first 80-game NHL season in five years. He’ll be fresh after a long summer, but health is always a concern for soon-to-be 40-year-old defencemen.

The same goes for Jaroslav Halak, who at 31 seems to battle the lower-body injury bug annually.

Key storylines entering camp:

1. Kopitar for Selke
Scoring may be an issue for Team Europe, but the good news is that they will ice the NHL’s premier defensive centreman, Selke Award winner Anze Kopitar.

Kopitar will have his hands full in a bracket with Canada, the USA and the Czech Republic, with his club needing to beat two of those three to advance to the semifinals. But Europe can count on a guy who will win the clutch defensive draw, and still had enough offensive chops to produce 74 points for the Los Angeles Kings last season.

2. Is Freddy ready?
Most Toronto Maple Leafs fans are excited about seeing Auston Matthews for the first time at the Air Canada Centre when he dons Team North America’s uniform during the World Cup. But the Leafs’ other key summer acquisition will be in Europe’s net: Frederik Andersen, the Dane whom the Leafs hope will be great for the duration of the five-year, $25-million deal.

The Leafs quickly signed him after acquiring Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks for the 30th overall selection in the 2016 draft (Sam Steel), and a second round pick in 2017.

Andersen will battle the New York Islanders tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss for the No. 1 job. If Andersen can’t win this battle, it could be a tough start for a goalie with a difficult job ahead in Toronto.

3. Who will score?
In last season’s NHL scoring race, Kopitar finished 13th with 25 goals and 49 assists. The next highest-scoring Team Europe player was 38th-ranked Swiss defenceman Roman Josi (14 goals, 47 assists). Only one other Team Europe player finished in the Top 50 in NHL scoring: Mats Zuccarello.

By comparison, Canada has 11 players who finished Top 50 last season, while the USA has four. The pressure will be on veteran Austrian Thomas Vanek to score, as well as young Oilers centre, German Leon Draisaitl.

4. Ciao! Cau! Tschau!
We sometimes lament that, in 2016, the innate differences in style between the world’s hockey countries have diminished. A Russian used to play a discernibly different style than a Swede or Canadian; a Czech player was noticeably not the same as a Finn.

Well, that dynamic is what Team Europe is hoping will help them gel. Today, the nine nations represented on Team Europe’s roster do not play the game so differently that they should not be able to mesh in a hurry at the World Cup. There are six Slovaks on Europe’s 23-man roster, alongside five Germans, four Danes, three Swiss and one each from Italy, France, Slovenia, Austria and Norway.

Good luck! Bonne Chance! Alles Gute!

Exhibition/Preliminary round schedule:
**Thursday, Sept. 8 vs. Team North America at Quebec City
**Sunday, Sept. 11 vs. Team North America at Montreal
**Wednesday, Sept. 14 vs. Sweden at Washington
Saturday, Sept. 17 vs. USA
Monday, Sept. 19 vs. Czech Republic
Wednesday, Sept. 21 vs. Canada

For Some N.H.L. Players, a Welcome Shot at Olympic Qualifying

Less than two weeks after the closing ceremony at the Rio Olympics, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games are the last thing on the minds of most people.

But for the French hockey player Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, they are all he can think about this week.

“I didn’t dream of being an N.H.L. player when I was growing up,” said Bellemare, a 31-year-old defenseman who made his N.H.L. debut two years ago with the Philadelphia Flyers. “The only thing I knew was the Olympics, and I dreamed of playing for the national team and being one of the best players in my country.”

Bellemare’s problem is that France has not qualified for the Games since 2002. But he and his teammates — and teams from 11 other countries — will get a chance to claim a place this week, when the International Ice Hockey Federation holds three qualifying tournaments for the final spots in the field for the Pyeongchang Games.

The three-game round-robin tournaments run from Thursday through Sunday. Belarus, Slovenia, Denmark and Poland will play in Minsk, Belarus; Latvia, Germany, Austria and Japan will play in Riga, Latvia; and Norway, France, Kazakhstan and Italy will play in Oslo.

The winners of each group will complete the 12-team field for Pyeonghcang, joining the nine teams that have already qualified for the tournament: Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovakia, Russia and the host country, South Korea.

But it is only because of a scheduling change that 26 N.H.L. players representing eight countries will get to take part in qualifying this year. Until this Olympic cycle, the qualification tournaments had always been held in February, which meant N.H.L. players were not available to participate. When the I.I.H.F. moved the tournaments to September, it opened the door for professionals playing in North America to compete.

The German defenseman Christian Erhoff, a 12-year N.H.L. veteran and three-time Olympian, has had a short summer of training after playing at the world championship in May. But like Bellemare, he said he would not have missed the Olympic tournament. Germany missed the Sochi Games — the first time it had failed to qualify for the Olympics since 1952 — and is eager to return.

“There was no question about playing,” Erhoff said. “We need to make the Olympics to get German hockey going in the right direction. The Olympics are the biggest spotlight for our sport in our country, and we need to be there and take the opportunity to push German hockey ahead.

“Our federation is not very rich and we need all the money we can get and the Olympics are a big part of that. If you don’t participate, you don’t get the money from the state and the sponsors, so there’s a lot more than pride at stake for us. This affects the future of German hockey and the ability to develop new players.”

Tobias Rieder, a 23-year-old wing for the Arizona Coyotes, was among the young players who missed out on Sochi. He had already played eight times for Germany at the junior level when it failed to qualify for the Olympics, and he said he had hoped that he would have the chance to help Germany make it back in Pyeongchang. But since he was preparing for his first professional season with Arizona, it took the scheduling change to September to make that happen.

“Watching the Olympics in Rio was awesome, and, obviously, you want to be part of that,” Rieder said. “I remember when they lost a game at the qualification tournament and didn’t make it to the Olympics. We want to do better and get back there. I’m really happy and really lucky to be in this position.”

It is unclear, though, whether even qualifying will get Bellemare, or the Germans, into the Games; the N.H.L. has not announced yet whether it will release its players to participate in Pyeongchang.

After the Olympic tournaments, about a dozen of the players will set aside their national loyalties and join a combined Team Europe in Quebec next week for training camp and exhibition games in advance of the World Cup of Hockey. That tournament begins Sept. 17 in Toronto.

Because it is the first of its kind, Bellemare acknowledged that “people don’t know what to expect from Team Europe, but neither do we.”

Team unity and chemistry, he and Reider said, will be a work in progress. But Bellemare said he expected the team — which also includes players like Slovakia’s Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar of Slovenia — to pull together for games against the likes of the United States, Canada, Sweden and Russia.

“But that’s next week,” Bellemare said. “This week, I want to help France make the Olympics.”

Three spots at grab for 12 Olympic hopefuls

By  Martin Merk –

This year the Olympic Qualification promises to be tighter than ever with no clear favourites in the three groups and for the first time the teams have the possibility to count on their NHL players in the Olympic Qualification due to the new dates early September.

Group D in Minsk, Belarus

After moving up the World Ranking, Belarus got the chance to host the Final Olympic Qualification for the first time at Minsk Arena, the magnificent venue built for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Belarus made it to the Olympics first time in 1998. For 2002 Belarus succeeded in the qualification tournament and finished fourth in Salt Lake City – the biggest success of the Belarusian national team ever after beating Sweden in the quarter-finals. Belarus played in Vancouver 2010 as one of the automatically qualified teams but missed out on qualification in 2006 and 2014.

Only NHLer Mikhail Grabovski as well as Vladimir Denisov were not able to join due to health reasons. Is everything clear for a party at home? It’s not that easy. At a recent press conference, Belarusian Ice Hockey Association President Igor Rachkovski gave the role of the favourite to Denmark with its NHL-heavy roster.

There’s another reason too. Belarus, Denmark and Slovenia already met in the qualification tournament for Sochi 2014 in Denmark and the winner was… Slovenia, the underdog of the competition.

With eight NHLers on the team, Denmark looks to be stronger than ever before less than four months after ending the World Championship on a high with the quarter-final qualification. Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller is missing due to private reasons while Morten Poulsen will miss the tournament due to an injury. But even without Eller the Danes have goalie Frederik Andersen, defenceman Philip Larsen, and forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand, Mikkel Boedker, Nikolaj Ehlers, Jannik Hansen, Nicklas Jensen and Frans Nielsen from the NHL as well as long-time players from European clubs. Making it to the Olympics for the first time in 2018 would be best advertisement for the country that will host for the first time the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Copenhagen and Herning the same year.

Slovenia doesn’t have that many NHL players. They just have one, but what a player it is! Los Angeles Kings captain and two-time Stanley Cup winner Anze Kopitar will lead the Slovenian team that recently earned promotion to the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and dreams of another upset after qualifying for Sochi 2014 and making it to the quarter-finals there. The small former Yugoslav republic is the best example that good players can also be developed in a smaller hockey community and with limited means.

Poland is the underdog in this group but on its way up to former glory. After having been far away from the top tier in Division I play, the national team has missed out on promotion in the last moment during the last two years and successfully hosted Division I tournaments in big venues in Krakow and Katowice. While Jacek Plachta’s team is not expected to win this tournament, it will gladly take the opportunity to play stronger rivals than usual and learn for the future. The roster is mostly complete and for the first time includes Polish-American forward Michael Cichy, who moved from NCAA hockey to Poland two years ago.

Group E in Riga, Latvia

For the fourth consecutive time Latvia will host a Final Olympic Qualification tournament, for the third consecutive time it will be at Arena Riga, the 10,300-seat arena opened for the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Home-ice advantage is a strong argument for the maroon-and-white team that will get loud fan support. Want a proof? The Latvians have won all four Olympic Qualification tournaments on home ice and since 2002 the Baltic nation hasn’t missed the Olympic Games in ice hockey. This year, however, the challenge may be bigger than ever with strong opponents and recent unease. Just before the start of the camp coach Leonids Beresnevs resigned. Haralds Vasiljevs, who led the team to its first Olympic Qualification to make it to Salt Lake City 2002, is the new man in charge. The roster includes players who had some NHL games, led by Zemgus Girgensons, while 17 players are under contract in the KHL – nine of them in the Latvian entry Dinamo Riga.

The biggest reason why it could be more difficult for Latvia is Germany. Between 1952 and 2010 the men’s national team always made it the Olympics until missing out on Sochi 2014 by losing the spot on home ice to Austria. Having seven players from NHL clubs with goalie Philipp Grubauer, defencemen Christian Ehrhoff, Korbinian Holzer, Denis Seidenberg und forwards Leon Draisaitl, Tom Kuhnhackl and Tobias Rieder gives the team high hopes and confidence. After missing it out last time, the co-host of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne and Paris is eager to succeed.

Division I nation Austria isn’t the favourite in Riga but after winning the Olympic Qualification tournament in Germany to qualify for Sochi 2014, the Austrians will assume this role again with pleasure when opening on Thursday against host Latvia. While Thomas Vanek, the most famous Austrian hockey player, didn’t join the team, new head coach Alpo Suhonen can count on NHLers Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl, who will be joined by his brother Thomas.

Three years ago Great Britain travelled to Riga to assume the role of the underdog. This time Japan will be the team many won’t take into account. The Japanese suffered relegation from the second to the third tier of World Championship hockey last spring and were for the first time overtaken by Asian rival Korea. This season the Japanese want to bounce back and hope to start the season on a positive note when facing stronger opposition in Riga. The team doesn’t have a current NHL player but a former one in veteran goalie Yutaka Fukufuji.

Group F in Oslo, Norway

Norway will host a group at a venue with an Olympic feeling. At the Jordal Amfi rink in the capital of Oslo the 1952 Olympic Winter Games were held as well as two World Championships. At this historic rink, that got a roof in the ‘70s, Norway already qualified for Vancouver 2010 and earned direct qualification for Sochi 2014 after having become a steady top-10 country. The roster includes NHL forwards Andreas Martinsen and Mats Zuccarello and several other world-class players from top European hockey leagues such as goalie Lars Haugen and forward Patrick Thoresen, whose father Petter Thoresen took over as new national team coach.

Between 1988 and 2002 France played at five consecutive Olympic Winter Games. If the team makes a step forward, it could make it again for PyeongChang 2018 and send a positive signal before assuming the role as co-host of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne and Paris. NHL forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is on the roster as are other internationally experienced players such as goaltender Cristobal Huet and the Da Costa brothers to name just a few.

Kazakhstan played at the Olympics in 1998 and 2006. Since that year the team mostly played in the second tier of world hockey and once it earned promotion it was relegated again. However, the Kazakh national team will be the most prepared one. Kazakhstan travels to Oslo basically with the KHL team Barys Astana. Every player without an exception has been part of the club team’s pre-season camp for the last few weeks under Andrei Nazarov, who serves as coach for both the club and national team. On the other hand a few common faces like Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev and Fyodor Polishuk, who play for Russian KHL teams, are missing.

Like Kazakhstan, Italy has been going up and down between the first two tiers of the World Championship and last time played at the Olympics as the host country in Turin 2006. During the last two seasons the federation focused on using players developed at home under coach Stefan Mair. But even then the roster includes one or the other player from a top league such as goalie Andreas Bernhard in Finland or forwards Diego Kostner and Giovanni Morini in Switzerland. Thomas Larkin, the first player grown up and developed in Italy to be drafted by an NHL team, is not among the initially registered players but the defenceman of KHL team Medvescak Zagreb is expected to join the team in time.