Ovechkin powers on; more Olympic roster drama
1. Look at Ovechkin now
Remember how everyone wondered whether Alex Ovechkin's two-game suspension would dull the edge to his game? Uh, never mind.
The rambunctious Russian has lit it up since being disciplined by the NHL for his knee-on-knee collision with Carolina's Tim Gleason. In the nine games since returning from his league-mandated rest on Dec. 7, Ovechkin has seven goals, 10 assists, only two penalty minutes and is a plus-8. The Caps have won three straight and own the top spot in the Eastern Conference, while Ovechkin posted three points in each of those victories heading into Monday's date with Carolina.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said he thought Ovechkin was a bit tentative in his first couple of games back and hasn't seen the star attempt too many open-ice hits since the suspension, but those are subtle changes to his game.
"I think he understands what happened, but at the same time he's saying 'I've got to be me,'" Boudreau told ESPN.com on Monday morning. "He's still playing with abandon, hitting in the offensive zone, cycling, driving his legs. If anything, his game is better. He's still the straw that stirs the drink."
Better? Now that's a scary proposition for the opposition.
2. Oh, Russia
Wouldn't it be rich if Russia couldn't get its act together at the Olympics because of the politics behind the makeup of its 2010 team? Months of braying and crowing about the strength of the Kontinental Hockey League has led to pressure to name as many KHL players to the Olympic squad as possible. Half of those invited to the Russians' orientation camp this past summer were from the KHL, as if that somehow legitimized the upstart league.
Now players like Alexei Kovalev (OK, he's been junk in Ottawa, but the man is a world talent), Alexander Frolov (seventh among Russian NHL skaters with 24 points although he is minus-10) and New York Rangers rookie Artem Anisimov (tied for ninth among all NHL rookies with 15 points) have been left off the roster in favor of fading veterans like Viktor Kozlov and anonymous players like Danis Zaripov, Sergei Zinoviev and Ilya Nikulin.
Maybe they'll be household names by the time the Olympics are over; or, perhaps, the Russians will have been too worried about puffing up the KHL to build the best team they could and hockey politics could cost them a gold in Vancouver.
3. Oh, Slovakia
Looking for a dark horse at the Olympics? Well, start in goal and then try to figure out which nation might be able to sneak out a couple of cliff-hangers to knock off a world power.
Right now, we're looking at that kind of dynamic with Slovakia if Jaroslav Halak can continue his magical play in goal. The Slovak wonder is tied for third among all NHL netminders with a .926 save percentage and has single-handedly hauled the mediocre Montreal Canadiens back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference (they began the week in seventh place).
Halak, a native of Bratislava, has won four in a row and five of six. In those five wins, he has faced an average of just more than 46 shots a night. His lone loss came when he faced just 27. Go figure.
Assuming Halak gets the nod as the Slovak backstopper in Vancouver and he can keep up the magic, he gives the underdog Slovaks a chance at a medal if you figure in a blue line that will include defending Norris Trophy champ Zdeno Chara and Edmonton's Lubomir Visnovsky and talented forwards like Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik.
4. Sweden's curious roster lineup
Talk about the old and the creaky.
The Swedish Olympic squad had better come with an extra set of bandages and a healthy supply of liniment if they're going to successfully defend their gold medal in Vancouver.
The squad announced Sunday in Stockholm is long on experience -- 13 players return from the team that defeated the Finns to win gold in 2006 -- but it is banged up and long in the tooth.
Peter Forsberg, he of the perpetually wonky foot/groin, is on the squad, as is the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom, although the 39-year-old surefire Hall of Famer is starting to show signs of wear and tear with just 15 points through the first three months of the season.
Daniel Alfredsson was named to the squad, even though he's out for at least a month with a shoulder injury. Niklas Kronwall also made the team, but is also out with a knee injury. Olympian Henrik Zetterberg is out with a shoulder injury.
Curious, too, was the selection of forward Fredrik Modin, who has been among the most injury-prone of NHLers since helping the Tampa Bay Lightning win a Cup in 2004. He has played just eight games this season, and that follows campaigns in which he suited up for just 50 and 23 games, respectively. Still, he was named ahead of players like Mikael Samuelsson of Vancouver (23 points) and Kristian Huselius of Columbus (26 points, but minus-10).
Samuelsson had some pointed words when informed of his exclusion. "They can go [expletive] themselves," he was quoted as saying in Canadian papers this past weekend.
Rookie defenseman Victor Hedman was also left off the team, as was Alexander Edler, who is having a good season in Vancouver with 20 points and would be playing in front of hometown fans if he had been named. Niclas Bergfors, the impressive rookie from New Jersey, was also not named as he was left off the team's long list earlier this fall. He is tied for fourth among all Swedish NHL skaters with 12 goals.
One bit of good news coming out of Stockholm, at least for the Detroit Red Wings, was the exclusion of Johan Franzen from the 23-man roster. There had been rumblings that Franzen, a goal-scoring machine, was going to try to expedite his return from knee surgery to play in the Olympics, which would have been an issue for a Red Wings team that is life and death to make the playoffs.
5. World Juniors? Yawn
Good to see the old holiday staple, the World Junior Championship (otherwise known as Canadian Teens Beat Up On Teens From Around The World) is off to a predictable start.
We often make sport of the women's international hockey scene, where the United States and Canada regularly throttle opponents in games leading up to the inevitable Canada/USA showdown for the title of whatever international event is being held. (It will be the same in Vancouver, by the way, so get ready for some football-like scores there, too.)
But the WJC, a "brought to you by Canada" production, has become a similar embarrassment. The Canadians, who defeated Latvia 16-0 to start the tournament on the day after Christmas, have won gold five straight times in a tournament that has essentially eaten itself. No one else in the world cares about the world juniors like Canadians, so organizers have chosen to have the tournament in Canada or locales close to the Canadian border (it's in Buffalo next year) only occasionally.
Good for the coffers as the games are sold out and the television ratings are always huge in Canada, but bad for competition and the integrity of the sport with the Canadians perpetually enjoying home-ice advantage. The predictable results -- Canada crushes everyone else -- might make for some good Canadian theater, but as a sporting event, the world juniors have become a meaningless bore.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
5 Things To Watch This Week
1. One of the NHL's marquee events takes place Friday as the third annual Winter Classic, held this year at Boston's venerable Fenway Park, features the Bruins hosting the Philadelphia Flyers. Or, at least, it's supposed to go off Jan. 1. Early forecasts suggest a lot of snow for later in the week, but that's one of the great (scary?) things about playing outdoors -- having to take what Mother Nature dishes out. As for the matchup itself, the Flyers have won three in a row and are looking better under new coach Peter Laviolette, while the Bruins are still struggling to find their offensive identity. Should be a grand time all around.
2. An interesting scheduling quirk this week will reveal what two Florida franchises are made of as the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will play three dates at home this week against Boston, Montreal and Pittsburgh. The Panthers began with a loss Sunday to Boston. They, like the Lightning, are a bubble team when it comes to making the playoffs. As the week began, both teams were just outside the playoff picture, but close enough to know that a stretch of good play will get them into the top eight. These games will be a good barometer for two teams desperate to jump back into the postseason.
3. The drama is starting to build leading into this week's announcements of the Canadian and United States Olympic teams. Canadian executive director Steve Yzerman will travel to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and the World Junior Championship to announce the Canadian team Wednesday. The event will be covered live in Canada and stands as a kind of national holiday. The U.S. team will be unveiled right after the conclusion of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1. Why the lineup isn't announced during the game when viewership will be at its peak is beyond us, but here's hoping all of America isn't at the fridge when the squad is revealed.
4. The Calgary Flames have gone from heroes to zeroes in the blink of an eye and now face the sobering prospect that they are closer to missing the playoffs altogether than winning the Northwest Division. Following Sunday's 5-1 shellacking by Vancouver on home ice, the Flames woke up Monday in eighth place in the West, two points ahead of Detroit. They travel to Edmonton on Monday before entertaining L.A., Edmonton and Toronto. Looks like a good time to start piling up some points for a team that has won just twice in its past nine games.
5. As difficult as it is to believe, the NHL will be at the midpoint of the regular season by the end of the week. With the Olympics looming, the rest of the season promises to be a blur. Biggest surprise of the first half? Phoenix, which begins this week riding a franchise-record nine-game home winning streak. The mighty Coyotes will travel to San Jose on Monday for a date with the Pacific Division-leading Sharks and then look to build on that home streak as they host Vancouver, San Jose and Detroit to close out the week.
Take This To The Bank
We haven't heard the last of the issue over making changes to Olympic rosters between now and the start of the tournament on Feb. 16. It boggles the mind that there remains such uncertainty over whether an injury is the only valid reason for making a switch once the rosters are announced.
If, as the Russians have suggested, they can make changes between now and the start of the tournament, what is the point of actually naming rosters before the tournament at all?
Sources told ESPN.com they believe the Russians are wrong and the spirit of the agreement is, once rosters are announced, no changes can be made except for injury. But why rely on the "spirit" of an agreement? Why isn't the wording definitive so there isn't any grey area? If the Russians, or any competing nation, for that matter, change outside the injury provision, it gives them a potential competitive advantage. For a tournament that should be a showcase event for the sport, it's unconscionable that it could begin under a cloud of mistrust.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens: The nifty Czech forward has 10 points in his past four games, a streak that coincides with a four-game winning streak by Les Habs. Plekanec's stock continues to rise as he contemplates becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Justin Williams, Los Angeles Kings: Williams is the poster boy for that old country western lament, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." The talented forward, who was a big part of the Kings' top line along with Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth, broke his right leg in Saturday's loss to Phoenix. He was placed on IR on Monday and the team said he could miss up to three months. The injury is the latest in a career full of grisly mishaps over the course of Williams' career.