Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2018 team preview: Team Penske



TEAM PENSKE 

Manufacturer: Ford 
Engine: Roush-Yates
Drivers:  Brad Keselowski, No. 2; Ryan Blaney, No. 12; Joey Logano, No. 22
Crew chiefs: Jeremy Bullins (Blaney), Todd Gordon (Logano), Paul Wolfe (Keselowski)
2017 standings: Keselowski, 4th in final standings (reached Championship 4); Blaney, 9th (eliminated in the Round of 8 with Wood Brothers Racing); Logano, 17th (did not reach the Playoffs)
What’s new: Team Penske is a three-car team this season, although its makeup doesn’t change that much since newcomer Ryan Blaney’s 2017 campaign with Wood Brothers Racing included an alliance with Team Penske. Paul Menard’s presence in the Woods’ No. 21 Ford is the newest thing about the larger group of drivers in 2018, as Menard comes over from Richard Childress Racing.
“I think just bringing back the 12 car to the Penske group is really special,” Blaney said during the 2018 NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. The car hasn’t been around in a long time. I remember growing up watching Ryan Newman drive it and loving that car. Hopefully we can have the success he had in it and more.”
What to watch: After the driver-crew chief pair of Blaney and Jeremy Bullins led to the 24-year-old star’s first pole (and second), first victory and first season with double-digit top-10 finishes in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, expect Blaney to keep building on his breakout 2017. Count on Joey Logano being focused and hungry to get back into the Playoffs after statistically his worst season since 2012. And watch Keselowski’s ongoing rivalry with Kyle Busch, which seems to fuel both of them to push harder for wins.
Key question(s): The Camry got an update in 2017; Chevrolet is bringing out the Camaro ZL1 in 2018. How will the Fords keep up with the other manufacturers? The Clash at Daytona was a pretty powerful start with the Nos. 2, 12 and 22 running 1-2-3 for much of the race.

DRIVERS 

Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Menards Ford: Blaney had the textbook breakout season in 2017. Along with his first victory, he gained in top fives, top 10s, laps led, average starting position and average finish from his first full Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season in 2016. One of those top fives was a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500.
Blaney is very comfortable heading into 2018 with his crew chief following him back to Team Penske and much of the team behind team remaining the same, as well. Expect him to improve on the number of races he finishes on the lead lap (21 in 2017), and therefore his average finishing position, as he builds on his first win and career-best 14 top-10 finishes.

Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Discount Tire Ford: A new primary sponsor is a big change for fans of the No. 2 team, though Miller Lite will return, as well.  But most of what got Keselowski, crew chief Paul Wolfe and their crew to the Championship 4 remains intact for 2018. Wolfe enters his eighth season as crew chief for the team as Keselowski starts his ninth full season driving for Team Penske.
Keselowski is one of the best superspeedway racers, giving him a good chance to start 2018 in a big way – his first Daytona 500 win. He has one win at Daytona’s summer race in 2016, and five victories at Talladega. A victory in the non-points Clash at Daytona bodes well for his superspeedway program in 2018, as well.
But Keselowski’s no aero specialist. He is a threat at any kind of track, with intermediate and 1.5-mile tracks, as well as Pocono’s “Tricky Triangle” among the places he’s piled up 24 career wins and the championship in 2012. Even if Ford does struggle to keep up with the newer Camry and Chevrolet bodies at times, don’t expect Keselowski to fall off.

Joey Logano, No. 22 Shell Penzoil Ford: After missing the playoffs for the first time in his Team Penske career, Logano looks to find his footing again. An encumbered race win and other factors led to his worst season since 2012.
A new father, Logano is also ready for a new team structure, saying he already worked closely with No. 12 driver Blaney last season. But his offseason focus has been on improving, saying he has been doing testing at the simulator and “spending time with each other, talking about races, talking about certain items on the car where we can be better to prepare for the first five or six races. Thinking about where we struggled last year and where we can be better in each department. We go from there. It is the same thing we would have done if we won the championship last year. It just seems like there is a little extra motivation this year because you don’t want to live it again.”

Slovakia stunner

Peter Ceresnak's power-play goal midway through the third period broke a 2-2 tie and sent Slovakia on to a stunning win over the Olympic Athletes from Russia.

It was the first game for both teams in Group B action on the men's side of the Olympic tournament.
The Athletes jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead and looked poised to blow their opponents away, but Slovakia proved resilient and, in the end, skated to an impressive victory under new coach Craig Ramsay.
"The coach told us before the tournament that we could beat anyone," enthused winning goalie Branislav Konrad. "We might struggle, but we will fight for results, and we did it! We played in the middle, we blcocked the shots. The guys must be hurt after all that. Thanks to them. We didn’t try to play with the puck, we just shot it up the ice. If we were tired, we weren’t afraid to shoot it for the icing. And then we scored some goals!"
The extra-man goal came on the second quick power play in the third for Slovakia because of OAR players shooting the puck out of play in their own end, plays that cost them the game as it turned out.
Although all teams advance to the next round of play, the loss could hurt the Olympic Athletes' hopes of earning a bye directly to the quarter-finals. 
"We didn’t skate well at first," acknowledged Dominik Granak. "We were down after four minutes, but then I think I was really important that all the guys in our group stayed focused. Our coaches helped us a lot. It was our first game in a long time, maybe two weeks for some guys, so maybe that was the reason. Maybe we were a little bit nervous because we knew how many star players they have. But after the first goal we scored, we started to believe we might be able to play against them. After half of the game, we played much better. The Russians had more chances, they controlled the puck, and had more power plays, but our PK did a great job. Our goalie was amazing, and we blocked so many shots in front of him."
"We played badly," offered Ilya Kovalchuk, "but I’m sure we’ll get better. We need to make sure we learn the right lessons from this. In the other game, Slovenia beat the Americans, so we’ve been warned that this is a very even group. Anyone can beat anyone. We need to prepare carefully and do better on the power play. We didn’t ease off after the two early goals. We still created plenty of chances. Their goalie was great, and in the first period they only had four shots. We didn’t ease off, they were just better than us."
The game could not have started out better for OAR or worse for Slovakia. The Slovaks had trouble merely getting a touch of the puck let alone a rush up ice with it, and to no one’s surprise this led to an early goal for OAR. Vladislav Gavrikov drifted a quick shot from the point that floated all the way in at 2:54.
Just 74 seconds later the Olympic Athletes made it 2-0 on a similar play. This time, though, Nikita Gusev’s routine shot was deftly deflected by Kirill Kaprizov in front, and the puck bounced past Branislav Konrad for a 2-0 lead.
The OAR players continued to dominate, skating freely and making clever passes emblematic of the confidence they exude when things are going well. A route seemed clearly in the process of happening.
But for whatever reason the hockey gods decided otherwise. Peter Olvecky skated down the right wing without looking dangerous at all. He took a simple snap shot on goal, but Vasili Koshechkin went down early and flubbed it, allowing it to go between his pads at 16:05.
Just like that the Slovaks had life, and 1:50 later they had tied the score. The play started with a blocked shot by Marek Hovorka inside his blue line. Martin Bakos scooped up the loose puck and also went down the right wing, but instead of shooting five hole he snapped a shot over Koshechkin’s glove as the goalie went down.
A period dominated by the Athletes form Russia was now 2-2. 
The second continued the reversal of fortunes. Although the OAR started the period on a power play, the Slovaks slowly but steadily skated with more confidence, moved the puck more effectively, and created several fine chances. In truth, although there was no scoring in the middle 20, it was the Athletes form Russia who were lucky not to be trailing.
In the third, Slovakia was the more determined team, even after they gained the lead and incurred two late penalties. The penalty killing was superb, and the players' willingness to block shots was brve in the extreme. In the end, it was clear they wanted to win more.
Both teams have a day off before returning to the ice. Slovakia will play the United States in the early game on Friday, after which the Olympic Athletes play Slovenia.

Mursak's the man!

To open the 2018 men's tourney, Slovenia rallied from a two-goal third-period deficit to edge the U.S. 3-2 in overtime. Jan Mursak got the winner at 0:38.

U.S. defenceman Matt Gilroy blocked Rok Ticar's first attempt to send the puck cross-ice to Mursak, but not the second one, and the Slovenian captain beat U.S. goalie Ryan Zapolski to the stick side. It was Mursak's second goal of the night.

"I'm happy I was able to score today and help the team, but I think the whole team showed a really good performance today," said Mursak.

Slovenia surprised everyone at the 2014 Olympics by finishing seventh, and it looks like they're planning to build on that history. This exciting upset was the first Slovenian win over the U.S. in Olympic history. The U.S. won 5-1 in Sochi in 2014.

Blaz Gregorc had a goal and an assist for the Slovenes, who are making their second Olympic appearance. Brian O’Neill had a goal and an assist for the Americans, and Jordan Greenway also tallied.

"They came out hard, they came up with a little more fire," said Greenway. "They were down 2-0 going into the third and we just didn't find a way to finish the game "
Zapolski, who leads the KHL with nine shutouts for Jokerit, lost his goaltending duel with Slovenian starter Gasper Kroselj. Shots favored the U.S. 36-25.

"We can play with them," said Gregorc. "It was no problem. We just said that we just need to stick together and just fight until the end."
The Kwandong Hockey Centre crowd of 3,348 oohed and ahhed frequently during its first taste of Olympic men’s hockey on Wednesday night.
It’s the first time the U.S. has assembled an Olympic roster with a majority of European-based pros. This was a battle between two veteran teams with an average age of 30.
In a manner of speaking, neither side was able to “stick” to its system early on. First, Slovenian defenceman Luka Vidmar was penalized for playing with a broken stick, and then U.S. defenceman James Wisniewski was caught getting his stick up on Jan Urbas.
During the ensuing 4-on-4, a pinching Sabahudin Kovacevic had a wide-open net during a scramble in front of the U.S. net, but defenceman Noah Welch slid on his knees to block a sure goal, and Kovacevic cursed his luck as he skated away.
For a while, it seemed that Slovenia, which has just 136 registered male players, would struggle to keep up with the quicker, more aggressive, and deeper Americans.

"The best part of the beginning of the game was we were pursuing pucks, hunting pucks, and putting the D in tough situations," said O'Neill.
The U.S. opened the scoring with 2:16 left in the first period. Hustling along the boards past Slovenian defenders, Garrett Roe centered the puck from behind the net, and it tipped off Miha Verlic’s outstretched stick to O’Neill, who roofed it.
O’Neill, who got two assists in 22 games for the New Jersey Devils in 2015-16 and now plays for Jokerit, is no relation to the former NHL executive of the same name.
At 12:57 of the second period, Greenway made it 2-0, as he raced to the crease and banged in a puck that deflected to him off O’Neill’s skate. at the Olympics. Greenway (Boston University), a 2017 World Junior champion, is the first African-American player to represent the U.S. at the Olympics.

"It was exciting to get my first one under my belt, but it would have been much better to get a win tonight," Greenway said.
Loud-and-proud American supporters dressed in the Stars and Stripes chanted “USA!” early in the third period, but then it was the turn of the Slovenian fans in bright green.

Gregorc, a two-time Olympian who plays for HC Hradec Kralove, cut the deficit to 2-1 at 5:49. The defenceman stepped in off the right point to whiz a wrister through traffic past Zapolski's blocker.

Slovenia came close to equalizing with U.S. captain Brian Gionta in the box for tripping. Verlic, parked on the doorstep, banged a rebound through Zapolski's pads just wide of the post.

The Slovenes pulled their goalie for the extra attacker with a late faceoff in the U.S. end, and it paid off. With just 1:37 left, Mursak pivoted to whack the rebound from Gregorc's point shot past Zapolski and tie the game.

"Hats off to them," said O'Neill. "They played really well in the third period. They did a lot of things well that we were doing well in the first two periods. They kind of turned the momentum around there when they got that first goal and they didn't let up."

History suggests the Slovenes have plenty of reason for optimism in Korea.
After Slovenia defeated Austria 4-0 in its qualification playoff game in Sochi, superstar centre Anze Kopitar was asked to explain how his country could do so well with such a small pool of players. “We’ve got 25 really good ones,” replied Kopitar.
The Los Angeles Kings veteran, who led the playoffs in scoring during his 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup runs, isn’t here – but he wasn’t even Slovenia’s scoring leader in 2014. That was forward Ziga Jeglic (4 points), who's back for 2018. Kopitar was one of four players tied for second (3 points).

"Of course we can celebrate a little bit but we have a lot of games ahead of us," Gregorc cautioned. Slovenia's next game is Friday against the Olympic Athletes from Russia. The U.S. takes on Slovakia that day.
The U.S. last won gold in the 1980 “Miracle in Ice” in Lake Placid. However, it struggled in the four “non-NHL” Olympics after that, placing seventh in 1984 and 1988, fourth in 1992, and eighth in 1994. The Americans hope they can diverge from that pattern as they strive to honor the memory of longtime USA Hockey executive and two-time Olympian Jim Johannson, who passed away unexpectedly on 21 January.

History makers

A fast start set Japan on the road to victory for the first time in Olympic women's hockey, but the biggest cheer went to Korean scorer Randi Heesoo Griffin

A 4-1 victory for Japan over Korea made little difference to the outcome of Group B - but it meant a huge amount to both competing nations.

The All-Asia match-up between Korea and Japan was one of the hottest tickets in the women’s competition – and both teams had high hopes of making history. Japan, in its third Games, was out to record its first victory at this level. Korea, whose unified team had been one of the talking points of the first days of the Games, was desperate to at least record its first Olympic goal after two 8-0 losses.
It took less than four minutes for Japan to squash home dreams of victory. In that time, goals from Hanae Kubo and Shoko Ono gave the Japanese a 2-0 lead – and made this the team’s highest-scoring performance in an Olympic group stage game. The previous best attempts, in a 3-6 loss to Russia and a 2-3 reverse against Germany, both came in Sochi’s classification round.
Fittingly, the country’s leading scorer opened the account here. Haruka Toko’s pass from behind the net found Kubo out in front with plenty of time to pick her spot and beat So Jung Shin to open the scoring after 67 seconds. Korea’s problems continued, and a Japanese power play saw the lead doubled after Shiori Kioke’s shot was padded across the face of the net before dropping to a Japanese forward via Miho Shishiuchi’s stick. The angle was tight, but the net was wide open and Ono made no mistake.
Those two goals set up a victory that means an enormous amount for Japanese hockey. Aina Takeuchi summed up her feelings: "We just focused on playing 100%, every single time, every single moment. This is a win at the Olympics. It's huge for us!"
For Korea, badly mauled in its first two games, now was the time to dig in and avert the risk of an even more painful defeat against its local rival. Shin pulled off a smart double save, blocking Kioke’s effort from the blue line before getting a pad behind Chiho Osawa’s shot from the rebound, and there was a terrific saving block from Suyeon Eom, who got her stick down to deny Toko a shot at an empty net as Japan tightened the screws.
But gradually, chances began to emerge at the other end, with Jingyu Lee looking lively. Her attempt on a breakaway was the toughest test for Japanese goalie Akane Konishi in the first period, and Korea’s finish to the opening frame gave the crowd hope that this game was still alive.
Those hopes crystallised in the middle session when the crowd finally got a home goal to cheer. Randi Heesoo Griffin wrote her name into the history books with Korea’s first ever Olympic goal, halving the deficit in the 30th minute. It may not have been the prettiest the Games has ever seen – Griffin did well to hold off Yurie Adachi and get a shot off from inside the right-hand circle, but she did not strike it cleanly and benefited from a deflection off the inside of Konishi’s pad. But, for the Korean fans in the Kwandong Hockey Centre, it was a moment to treasure. The volume around the arena cranked up several notches, the pale blue outline of the Korean peninsular fluttered from a flag waved proudly by every hand; the excitement even momentarily ruffled the impeccable timing of the famous North Korean cheerleaders.
But Griffin was not ready to turned into a hero. "I'm definitely not a hero," she smiled after the game. "It was a crappy shot that took a couple of bounces and went into the net.
"The important thing is that our team put up a lot of offence. There were lots of shots with a chance to get to the net and I got lucky with mine."
Seconds later, the noise threatened to go to 11 as Korea went close to tying the scores. Yoonjung Park came marauding out of defence and showed great skills with a dangle to open up the Japanese rearguard. Yunjung Choi fired in a dangerous shot, but Konishi was up to the task and Japan held onto its lead.
Despite Korea’s little flurry, the balance of play still favoured Japan. The early stages of the third period saw Kubo go close again of Ukita’s feed, and Toko testing Shin from point blank range. Each Korean save set the noise going again, and opportunities at the other end – though few and far between – threatened to tip the crowd into delirium.
In the end, though, Japan made the game safe with eight minutes left to play when another power play gave Koike the chance to shoot home from the blue line. Korea pulled its goalie with just over two minutes to play, but was punished when Ukita forced a turnover and went on to score in the empty net. Her second of the Games took Japan to four for the night, and its highest-scoring show in Olympic action.
"I think that third goal was really big," said Akano Hosoyamada. "This is a historical event. More younger generations are going to see this and want to be part of the program and part of an amazing feat on the Olympic stage."
For Korea, though, there was a sense of pride despite the defeat. The home crowd was in no mood to let its heroes go, staying on after the hooter to cheer Sarah Murray's team off the ice amid a shower of plush toys. The unified team may have been defeated on the ice, but it clearly won its place in the hearts of the sporting public of PyeongChang.
Both nations now go to the classification round, where they will be joined by the beaten quarter-finalists in a play-out to determine places 5-8 in this year's tournament.