Penalty Minutes: Predicting the Olympic medals

Minnesota's Ryan Suter scored his first career hat trick on Saturday against Washington.

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the New York Islanders have found their game.

The same team that lost 10 straight from Nov. 19 to Dec. 9 is scoring in bunches and is playing well enough — believe it or not — that a second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not out of the question.

The Islanders began Wednesday ranked 14th in the Eastern Conference, but only seven points behind Washington for the East’s final playoff spot. It’s worth noting that Washington has flatlined to a degree lately, as has Toronto, which is seventh in the East with 47 points. (Since Dec. 8 the Leafs have won only five times and needed the shootout to do it three times; meanwhile, the Capitals have won once since Dec. 21.) In fact, the Maple Leafs were the Islanders’ latest victims.

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On Wednesday, the Isles won for the fifth time in their last six games and for the seventh in their last 10 with a 5-3 victory. Over their past 10 games, the Islanders have scored at least five goals five times, somewhat diminishing the worries over their less-than-stellar goaltending and defense. Those goaltending concerns grew a bit more acute on Monday when goalie Evgeni Nabokov suffered a lower-body injury in a 7-3 win over Dallas and had to leave the game — especially since Nabokov missed a month with a groin strain earlier this season.

However, Newsday is reporting that the Islanders expect Nabokov to miss only two weeks. Nabokov is 9-8-5 with a 2.88 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. The Islanders other goalies — Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson — are 7-14-2 and neither has a GAA lower than 3.24 or a save percentage above .891.

Helping to lead the resurgence has been center John Tavares, who was tied for second in the league in scoring with 54 points entering Wednesday, and wing Kyle Okposo. Tavares was such a lock for the Canadian Olympic team that Canadian general manager Steve Yzerman quipped during the announcement of the team on Tuesday that if Tavares, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP last season, had not registered five points (three goals, two assists) on Monday, he would not have made the team.

Wing Thomas Vanek told the New York Daily News that Tavares, 23, is the best player he has played with.

"He’s one of the best in the world," Vanek said. "There aren’t too many out there."

With 17 goals and 26 assists, Okposo is having a career season and is tied for 12th in the league in points. Nonetheless, he was among the more notable names not selected to the U.S. Olympic team. The seventh overall pick in 2006, Okposo (nine points in his last five games) is only seven goals off his career high of 24 and nine points off his career high of 52 with almost half a season left to play.

Fortunately for the Islanders, they seem to have awoken from their slumber early enough to try and make a push. It was easy to forget for much of the season’s first half that they dominated Pittsburgh at times during a six-game first-round series loss last spring. Perhaps, if they keep it up, they will get a chance to build on that performance.

Four years ago when Canada announced its Olympic team, Mike Richards won one of the 14 prestigious spots given to forwards on the team. He made good on that selection by totaling two goals and three assists in seven games and helping his home and native land to the gold medal.

When Canada announced its 2014 team on Tuesday, Richards’ name was hardly in the conversation. He had to watch as friend and teammate Jeff Carter, with whom Richards broke into the NHL with Philadelphia back in 2005, earned the honor to represent Canada among its forward ranks.

Once among the game’s elite — he was a finalist in 2009 for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward — Richards’ profile seems inexplicably to be growing smaller and smaller despite being only 28 and having a Stanley Cup to his credit.

Last Thursday, in a 5-0 loss to St. Louis, the former Flyers’ captain played only 14:26 — which was not even a season low — and went minus-1 with three shots, two giveaways and won only 29 percent of his faceoffs. That game represented a fifth straight loss, the longest streak in the tenure of coach Darryl Sutter, who guided the club to that Stanley Cup ring in 2012. With Jonathan Quick back in goal for the first time in nearly two months, the Kings briefly rebound with a 3-1 victory over Vancouver on Saturday, but fell to 1-5-1 over their last seven with a 2-1 shootout loss to Minnesota on Tuesday.

While Richards’ average time on ice shrank to 16:21 per game last season, his lowest since his rookie season, it has somewhat rebounded in 2013-14. Sutter started out the season playing him more, but now Richards has not hit the 20-minute mark in more than a month. Richards averages 17:36 and still ranks third among the Kings’ forwards. However, his average this season still represents a steep decline from the ’08-’09 season when he averaged 21:44 in Philadelphia, sixth-best among all forwards in the league.

In addition to ice time, Richards’ offense has also declined. A two-time 30-goal scorer, he has six this season, putting him on pace for 11, which would represent the second-lowest total of his career and, potentially, the lowest rate of his career. His low came with 10 in his second season of 2006-07, but he only played in 59 games. He already has played in 44 this season. Richards has not netted a goal since Nov. 25, a span of 18 games, and has only one point in his last 11.

Granted, the Kings play a defense-first system, but Richards is earning $7.6 million this season, making such a total hard to stomach — even if he is second on the Kings in points with 28.

There are many things a player can do to help his team win besides score and Richards surely does plenty of them. But the Kings’ lock on a playoff berth in the highly competitive Western Conference is by no means certain. They stand only six points ahead of Minnesota, which is currently in ninth and on the outside looking in. Surely, the Kings could get more from a player with six more years and $29 million left on his contract after this season.

1. St. Louis: The Blues have won their last three games by a scorign margin of 16-4.

2. Anaheim: The Ducks lead NHL in points and are still unbeaten at home (18-0-2).

3. Chicago: The Blackhawks are unbeaten in regulation over their last 10 games (6-0-4).

4. Pittsburgh: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma became the franchise’s all-time leader in wins on Tuesday with 233.

5. Boston: The Bruins’ 27 regulation-plus-overtime wins rank third in the NHL.

26. Winnipeg: The Jets have lost four straight games and have fallen to last place in the Central Division.

27. Florida: At 10-11-2, goalie Tim Thomas is inching closer to .500.

28. Calgary: The Flames’ goal drought continues. In their last six games, they have scored just five goals.

29. Edmonton: The Oilers have allowed five goals in regulation in three of their last four games, all losses.

30. Buffalo: The Sabres have hired Ottawa assistant general manager Tim Murray as their new GM. He has a big task ahead of him.

For the first time this season, the ageless Jaromir Jagr will play against the team with which he suited up for most of last season. Jagr, who will be 42 next month, leads New Jersey in points with 35 — 10 more than Patrik Elias, who ranks second on the team. Jagr also owns a plus-12 rating, among the top 50 in the league, and will play in his fifth Olympics next month for his native Czech.

Jagr was a strange fit for the Stars, who were a mix of young and old last season. The purge of the old began at last season’s trading deadline when Jagr, captain Brenden Morrow and others were moved. With promising young players like Tyler Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin and Alex Chiasson under new general manager Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff, the Stars would not have had the ice time to devote to a player like Jagr this season. Thursday should mark an interesting contrast.

Seemingly a regular entry here, Suter scored his first career hat trick on Saturday in a 5-3 win over Washington and finished plus-2 with two penalty minutes, three shots and four blocked shots in 31:06. The league’s leader in average time on ice, Suter netted a pair of power-play goals 38 seconds apart to help turn around a 2-1 deficit. The win was the Wild’s second in a row after a six-game losing streak.

Honorable mention: Nathan Horton, Columbus. In a 2-0 win over Phoenix last Thursday, Horton scored the game-winner — his first of the season — in his first game of the season, which also happened to be his debut with his new team. Signed to a seven-year, $37.1 million contract in the offseason, Horton missed the first half of the season with a shoulder injury that sidelined him from late last season when he played for Boston. With Horton in the lineup at last, the Black Jackets might be more competitive in the Metropolitan Division as the playoff race heats up. Horton also had two shots and three hits in 14:47.

Dishonorable mention: Adam Henrique, Michael Ryder and Ryan Clowe, New Jersey. In a 5-3 loss to Chicago last Friday, each member of the line went minus-4. The Devils have long prided themselves on being one of the league’s top defensive teams and despite the 23rd-best record in the league their goal differential is only minus-10, meaning this was a particularly poor showing.

Predicting which nations will win which Olympic hockey medals seems like a fool’s errand . . . but that’s what we’re here for. To sum up the previous four Olympics since NHL players began participating, look at it this way: North Americans excel — surprise, surprise! — in Olympics held in North America. Consider Canadian gold in Vancouver (2010) and Salt Lake (2002) with United States silver in those years and gold in Lake Placid (1980) and Squaw Valley (1960).

Europeans tend to do better when the Games are not held in North America: Sweden defeated Finland for gold in Turin (2006) and Czech defeated Russia in the gold medal game in Nagano (1998).

Invariably, a player will come out of nowhere to star, as Finnish goalie Antero Niittymaki did for Finland in ’06. Some countries, like Finland, play a great team game and become more than the sum of their parts. Some national teams seem incapable of playing a team game and self-destruct like the Russians in ’10, as they trailed 3-0 in the first eight minutes of a humiliating 7-3 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals. Having said all of that, here is one man’s guess for Sochi:

Gold: Canada

Try as one might to pick a team other than Canada — there’s little reason to be enamored with their goaltending, but they won gold with a shaky Robert Luongo in Vancouver — it was impossible not to. With due respect to all of the others, they have the best defense and best forwards.

The Canadian defense can do it all — skate, hit and supply offense. Chicago’s Duncan Keith is the runaway leader for the Norris Trophy at this point in the NHL season and Nashville’s Shea Weber is quietly having an excellent season himself. The St. Louis duo of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo brings ready-made chemistry from arguably the top team in the NHL (at least from the Penalty Minutes rankings). Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty can skate with the best of them and was one of the best players in Vancouver.

Oh, Canada. Will Sidney Crosby lead the Canadians to another Olympic gold?

At forward, Canada has the best player in Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby, who, it should be noted, scored the gold-medal-winning goal in overtime four years ago. Canada is loaded down the middle. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Toews of Chicago is as good as any center in the league in terms of two-way play and the Islanders’ Tavares (noted above) is hot and coming off a season in which he was a Hart Trophy finalist. On the wing, Anaheim’s Corey Perry, Chicago’s Patrick Sharp and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz can bring bucketfuls of goals.

The only thing that can beat Canada if it’s on top of its game is a goalie who gets super hot in the medal round (we’re thinking an American like Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller).

Silver: Russia

As the host country, the Russians are under immense pressure to win. They dare not risk the wrath of Vladimir Putin. Still, they seem ill-fated.

The strength here is clearly the forwards: Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and his NHL-best 31 goals, newly-minted KHL-er Ilya Kovalchuk and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin are among the most talented offensive players in the world. Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk is truly one of the game’s gems and his two-way play, like Toews, is virtually unrivaled.

Having said that, the defense does not go too much more than three deep: there’s reason to like Columbus’ Fedor Tyutin, Montreal’s Andrei Markov and the Kings’ Slava Voynov, but the remainder of the group is not close to the world-class.

In goal, if Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky can find his form from last season, when he won the Vezina Trophy, or if Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov can play at the level that he has for most of this season, the Russians might be strong enough to win the tournament.

Bronze: United States

In electing to pick a team he thinks is best suited to win the tournament and eschewing an All-Star team of the top 25 players, U.S. general manager David Poile is conducting a bold experiment. The controversy over Calgary president Brian Burke’s public comments aside, the omission of Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan and his 18 goals represents a high-risk move.

Still, the United States has talented scorers in Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Toronto’s Phil Kessel and San Jose’s Joe Pavelski. Unlike some of the other teams, it has plenty of blue-collar forwards with a recent history of Olympic success like Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan. Those players likely hold the key to the Americans’ success in terms of playing defensive hockey, killing penalties and providing whatever offense they can.

On the back end, Suter is as good as they come, but he will play with a mix of young players who are excellent skaters but untested at the Olympic level (Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, Washington’s John Carlson and Carolina’s Justin Faulk).

In goal, the Americans might have as strong of goaltending as anyone. If Jonathan Quick can shake off the rust from his long absence from injury and return to his Stanley Cup-winning form of ’12 or if Miller, who has been excellent despite playing behind the league’s worst team in Buffalo, can find his Olympic form of ’10, the Americans also have a shot — perhaps a long shot — for gold.