Day: February 10, 2018

Grigorenko eyes Olympics

By Andrew Podnieks –

“It’s really exciting even just to think about it,” he said. “Hopefully I can make a good impression with the coach. It’s great to get a chance to play at the big tournament.”

Grigorenko won a bronze medal with Russia’s U18 team in 2011 and then won three medals in a row at the U20 – silver in 2012, and bronze in 2013 and 2014. Nevertheless, those moments pale beside the possibility of playing at the Olympics.

“It’s different for everyone,” he explained. “I mean, personally, I think the Olympics is the biggest, especially in our country. It’s amazing to represent your country and play for your flag and wear the jersey. To me, the Olympics is a bigger thing than the Stanley Cup.”

When he looks back on his childhood in Khabarovsk in the Far East of Russia not far from Korea, one Olympic memory stands out. “When you’re a kid, you always watch that tournament,” he reflected. “It’s the biggest stage there is. I remember watching the game in 2006 when Russia beat Canada in the quarters, when Ovechkin scored. That was huge.”

Grigorenko is a rare example of a Russian who left to play junior hockey in Canada. He went to the Quebec Remparts in 2011 and two years later was drafted a lofty 12th overall by the Buffalo Sabres.

A bit slow to develop, Grigorenko bounced between the NHL and both junior and the minors before getting a more serious chance after a trade to Colorado, where he started under coach Patrick Roy, his coach from the Remparts.

“It was a good experience,” he said of the move to Canada, “learning the language and a different culture, playing under a good coach. It was a good organization in Quebec. I’m happy that I went there and played three amazing years there.”

This past summer, though, the Avs didn’t offer him a contract, and after considering all of his options, he decided to return home and play, for the first time, in the KHL, with CSKA Moscow. Not coincidentally, that freed him up for possible Olympic participation.

“It was just one of the factors,” he explained of the move home. “Obviously, you always think about getting the opportunity to play for the national team, but there were some other factors. The Olympics, though, was definitely one of them.”

Although he doesn’t rule out the possibility of returning to the NHL at some point, it’s not a priority at this stage of his career.

“I don’t think about it,” he said. “I have a contract in the KHL, so we’ll see what happens. I’m happy where I am right now.”

As for the Russian team in PyeongChang, Grigorenko is full of praise and hope.

“I think we have a little bit of everything,” he said. “We have some experienced guys, younger guys, skilled guys, good defence, amazing goalies. We have some players with NHL experience like Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, so going forward it looks good.”

And Grigorenko hopes to prove himself, with the national team and back home with CSKA Moscow.

“Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’ll do. Throughout my career I’ve played centre and wing, penalty kill, power play. Whatever they want, I think I can do. There’s still a long way to go, but hopefully I can make it.”

Finns to the NHL in a flash: Heiskanen, Tolvanen are ready

By The Associated Press

Miro Heiskanen and Eeli Tolvanen are must-see entertainment at the Olympics, even for their Finnish teammates.

Heiskanen and Tolvanen are the only 2017 first-round draft picks playing in the tournament, an opportunity to show what their very-near NHL futures might look like. Heiskanen, a puck-moving defenseman who was the third pick of the Dallas Stars, and Tolvanen, a scoring winger who was the 30th pick of the Nashville Predators, have substantial roles for Finland and are expected to play in the NHL next season, if not sooner.

”It’s a great thing to get a chance to play with them before they go in the bigger league,” captain Lasse Kukkonen said. ”I think it’s going to be fun.”

Heiskanen and Tolvanen are 18-year-olds who joke around in the locker room and bring what coach Lauri Marjamaki called a ”freshness” to the team full of European-based veterans. Tolvanen will play on the first line alongside Petri Kontiola and get first power-play time, and Heiskanen will be counted on to pump in some goals from the blue line.

That’s not too much of an expectation. Two of the youngest players in the tournament, along with projected 2018 top pick Rasmus Dahlin of Sweden, Heiskanen and Tolvanen have drawn rave reviews for how they fit in with and against older players.

”It’s amazing to see how well they play at a young age, but if you watch them on the ice you could never tell,” Kukkonen said.

Heiskanen has 11 goals and eight assists in 25 games with HIFK in the Finnish Elite League, while Tolvanen has 17 goals and 17 assists in 47 games with Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Playing against grown men seems to make them thrive. Heiskanen said older teammates ”are smarter, and it’s maybe easier to play with those guys,” and Tolvanen considers it a challenge.

”I’ve always been the youngest guy on the team,” Tolvanen said. ”It’s just more fun playing against older guys because you know they’re stronger, maybe faster than you are, so you have to compete every day and you have to give your best every night.”

The Stars and defending Western Conference-champion Predators know they have something special in Heiskanen and Tolvanen. Rumors have swirled about Tolvanen joining the Predators this season, but he’s concerned first about the Olympics and the rest of the KHL season.

”I don’t think that’s a thing I have to worry (about) right now,” Tolvanen said. ”I just have to live in the moment and live day by day. I still have playoffs with Jokerit, so let’s see after the playoffs what I’m going to do.”

Tolvanen said his game resembles that of St. Louis Blues sniper Vladimir Tarasenko and compared Heiskanen’s to Norris Trophy-winning Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson. Those are lofty comparisons, but Finns who have played in the NHL like what they see so far.

”(Heiskanen) really plays like a seasoned veteran,” former Calgary Flames goaltender Karri Ramo said. ”I play with Tolvanen and he’s been excellent. … His overall game’s been improving all the time. He’s going to be a big part of this team and a big part of Jokerit.”

Nashville already is overflowing with young forwards – Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala – and looks primed for another deep playoff run. Any team looking to trade with the Predators ahead of the Feb. 26 deadline will undoubtedly ask about Tolvanen, but he and Heiskanen might be NHL-ready and able to help now.

”He’s a great kid,” Marjamaki said. ”Eeli’s so talented (of a) guy and versatile player. I like his hockey sense, he’s pretty good skating and (has a) unbelievable shot.”

Heiskanen, who is feeling good now after dealing with the effects of a concussion in the fall, figures making the jump to the NHL is possible next season as long as he trains hard this summer. Playing with him in pre-Olympic tournaments made quite the impression on Tolvanen, who is on board with Heiskanen taking his talents to the next level.

”He’s an amazing player,” Tolvanen said. ”He’s really fun to play with because he can see you and he has the ability to score goals, so I think that’s a D-man I want on my team.”

Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn should like the sound of that.

For his part, Tolvanen also said he’s ready to make the leap to the NHL after proving himself in the KHL, and Kukkonen is eager to witness what the two kids can do when they get to North America.

”The sky’s the limit,” Kukkonen said. ”We’ve seen both guys doing big things already, and they only keep getting better, so I think they’re going to be top players in the world once they get a little bit older.”

Swiss top unified Koreans

By Lucas Aykroyd –

On any other night, Swiss star Alina Muller’s Olympic-record six-point night (4-2-6) would have dominated the headlines. But the diplomatic implications of this game in the quest for peace and unity were impossible to ignore.

Saturday marked the first time that the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic (DPR) of Korea in the north have ever fielded a joint team in any Olympic sport. The agreement was only finalized in January. The 2018 women’s hockey team is competing under a blue-and-white flag depicting the Korean peninsula.

Among the 3,601 spectators, having some 200 red-clad female North Korean cheerleaders singing, clapping and swaying added to the unforgettable atmosphere at the Kwandong Hockey Centre.

Phoebe Staenz and Lara Stalder also scored twice for Switzerland, which outshot Korea 52-8. Sara Benz added three assists. As hard as the Korean women worked, they couldn’t match their opponents’ skill and opportunism.

Muller was the youngest player in Sochi at 15 when the Swiss women won their historic 2014 Olympic bronze medal. Her explosion here tied the single-game goals record co-owned by Switzerland’s Stephanie Marty and Sweden’s Pernilla Winberg, who both had four-goal games at the 2010 Winter Games. With six points, she also equalled Canada’s Cherie Piper (2006) and Jayna Hefford (2010) for the most points in one game.

Korea has an exemption to have a 35-player roster, but can only ice 22 players in a game, like the other seven Olympic teams. From a pool of 12 DPR Korea players, head coach Sarah Murray chose to dress three forwards: Chung Gum Hwang, who helped to carry the Korean flag at Friday’s opening ceremonies; Su Hyon Jong, who carried the Olympic torch along with South Korean captain Jongah Park; and Un Hyang Kim.

In this developing hockey nation, the fans responded enthusiastically even to simple plays like dump-ins or near-misses. There was a constant feeling of cresting anticipation. Even with victory out of reach, the crowd hungered for a goal.

Switzerland’s Florence Schelling set a new record for most Olympic games played by a goalie (15). The 2014 Olympic MVP was previously tied with Finland’s Noora Raty (active) and Russia’s Irina Gashennikova (retired) with 14 apiece. Schelling also tied Canada’s Kim St-Pierre (retired) for most career Olympic shutouts (four).

Fired up, the Koreans came out hard, getting two consecutive power plays. They also got the best early chance. Heewon Kim, this tournament’s youngest player at 16, stole the puck from Stalder at the blue line. When Stalder hauled her down, Soojin Han sped in on a breakaway and zinged it off the cross bar.

But the good times were short-lived for the hosts. The feisty Muller opened the scoring on a shorthanded solo rush, cutting inside on the Korean defence and beating netminder So Jung Shin to the glove side at 10:23.

Just a minute later, Muller made it 2-0 on another outnumbered rush, converting Sara Benz’s cross-ice pass past the defenceless Korean goalie.

The 19-year-old ZSC Lions Frauen sniper completed her natural hat trick at 19:48. The Swiss worked it around the zone like the famous 1980’s Soviet “Green Unit,” and Muller banged it home at the goalie’s left post.

At 1:26 of the second period, Muller capitalized on a Korean giveaway in the slot and wired home her fourth of the night. Just 55 seconds later, Evelina Raselli fed Staenz cross-ice on the rush to make it 5-0. Staenz clicked again on another Raselli set-up at 17:19 to give Switzerland a six-goal lead.

In the third period, Stalder made it 7-0 at 9:42 with a power play drive, and then coolly finished off a breakaway at 11:48 to round out the scoring.

Korea’s Olympic hockey debut attracted big names. IOC President Thomas Bach, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and Kim Yong-nam (President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly) entered the arena with smiles and handshakes. Also present were Switzerland’s Federal President Alain Berset, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder attended with his Korean fiancee Kim So-yeon.

Winning start for Sweden

By Andy Potts –

After all the talk and anticipation, the hockey action finally got away in PyeongChang on Saturday, and Sweden’s women were the first to celebrate victory edging a hard-earned verdict over a brave Japan.

Sara Hjalmarsson’s goal early in the third period broke a 1-1 tie and handed the Europeans the victory, but better finishing from the Japanese could easily have delivered a very different story. Swedish goalie Sara Grahn finished with 30 saves to preserve her team’s slender advantage even after Japan finished with a 6-on-4 set-up for the last 40 seconds.

It was a match-up that promised intrigue: four years ago in Sochi the two teams met at the start of the Group B program and Japan, in its first games since hosting the inaugural women’s competition in 1998, pushed the Swedes all the way before going down 0-1. Four years on, the Japanese hoped to claim a first ever victory in Olympic action – and could point to a roster buoyed by several players who had spent time playing overseas in North America or Finland in the intervening years.

Against a newly streetwise Japan, Sweden included 17-year-old blue liner Maja Nylen-Persson, a star of the Tre Kronor’s run to World U18 silver in Russia last month. The youngster almost made an immediate impact when her early slap shot narrowly evaded Rebecca Stenberg’s attempt to deflect it beyond Nana Fujimoto in the Japanese net.

Japan scrambled that one away, but the reprieve was short-lived. Fanny Rask claimed the honour of the first goal of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games when she collected a Sabina Kuller pass and lifted the puck over Fujimoto’s shoulder and inside the near post to score from a tight angle. Rask, whose brother Victor helped Sweden to men’s World Championship gold in Cologne last year, needed just 2:21 to bag her first ever Olympic goal after failing to register a point in Sochi.

Delight for Sweden, but for Japan it was time to show some steel behind the Smiles. And gradually the Asian team, enthusiastically backed by a large contingent that had made the short trip across the Sea of Japan, got into the game. Grahn felt the full force of a Haruka Toko shot into her helmet but recovered in time to make a sharp blocker save from Hanae Kubo. Then the Swedish goalie got an extended leg behind Suzuka Taka’s attempt after a defensive error. At the other end, Stenberg could have doubled the lead on a breakaway play but Fujimoto came up with a big save.

The middle frame slipped into a something of a lull, with chances at a premium for both teams. But the Japanese fans – including the country’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe – had plenty to cheer in the 37th minute when Rui Ukita tied the game. Toko’s hard work behind the net was rewarded when a scramble in front of Grahn’s net ended with Ukita smashing home the puck on the backhand after Kubo’s pass squeezed across the face of goal.

The game was brimming with Eastern promise going into the third, as Japan scented a chance to record its first ever victory at the Olympics. But that dream was shattered within two minutes of the restart as Hjalmarsson restored Sweden’s lead. Erika Grahm forced a turnover in the Japanese zone, and her feed from the behind the net was gobbled up by the AIK Stockholm forward from close range.

Japan still created chances: two power play opportunities went begging, while Ami Nakamura fired a tame shot into Grahn’s midriff when well placed and Ukita was denied a second by the goalie after lax defence presented her with a position similar to the one from which Hjalmarsson scored the decisive goal.

However, the team of smiles lacked the necessary bite to tie the scores a second time and, just as in Sochi, fell to a tight loss against a fancied opponent after one last big save from Grahn to deny Nakamura.

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