Friday, February 16, 2018

2018 team preview: Joe Gibbs Racing


Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota
Engine: Toyota Racing Development (TRD)
Drivers: Denny Hamlin, No. 11; Kyle Busch, No. 18; Daniel Suarez, No. 19; Erik Jones, No. 20
Crew chief: Mike Wheeler (Hamlin), Adam Stevens (Busch), Scott Graves (Suarez), Chris Gayle (Jones)
2017 standings: Busch, 2nd in final standings (reached Championship 4); Hamlin, 6th (eliminated in Round of 8); Jones, 19th (did not reach the Playoffs driving for Furniture Row Racing); Suarez, 20th (did not reach the Playoffs); Matt Kenseth, 7th (eliminated in Round of 12 driving No. 20 car)
What’s new: After running his rookie Monster Energy Series campaign with Furniture Row Racing last year, sophomore driver Erik Jones takes over the No. 20 Toyota, a seat filled by Kenseth since 2013. Jones also brings company as Chris Gayle moves over from FRR to serve as crew chief.
What to watch: How quickly sophomore sensations Jones and Suarez win their first career race (and yes, it’s WHEN, not IF). Both are poised to have breakout seasons. Between veteran leadership of Busch and Hamlin, along with new, talented blood, JGR is going to be one tough organization to beat (again) in 2018.
Key question(s): Can Jones and Suarez break into Victory Lane for the first time? Can Toyota pick up where they left off last year, or will the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 give the JGR Camrys a run for their money? Also, can Busch win at Charlotte Motor Speedway to have a win at every race track on the Monster Energy Series circuit?
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry: It was a very steady season for Hamlin in 2017 — a pair of victories, 15 top fives and 22 top-10 finishes. An average finish of 11.6 was also a career-best for Hamlin. But in a world where race victories and stage wins mean the most, consistency only gets a driver so far.

Hamlin has come heartbreakingly close to winning a championship on multiple occasions, but sealing the deal has been a tall task. If he can cook up more consistent finishes and sprinkle in a few more race/stage wins, it will have all the makings for a Championship 4 recipe.
Surely, starting on the Daytona 500 front row is a nice jumpstart.
Kyle Busch, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry: When .681 seconds separates you from a second Monster Energy Series championship, you’re going to have a chip on your shoulder. That’s exactly the case for “Rowdy” this season. We know Busch doesn’t need any more fuel for his fire to win, but coming thatclose to another title just allows the blaze to burn even brighter.
Coming off a stellar five-win season, Busch hopes for more of the same in 2018.
I don’t think we would be any worse,” he said. “I would like to think we’d be better. We kind of started out the season a little bit on the slower side, if you will, last year with our new car. We were kind of behind the 8‑ball a little bit maybe, and as the season kind of progressed, we learned what things our car liked and what we needed to do in order to make ourselves better and more competitive, and we were able to do those things and got it to where we were pretty fast there obviously and peaked later in the season. Hopefully we can start out our year this year a little stronger than we did last year.”
Daniel Suarez, No. 19 Arris Toyota Camry: With one top five and 12 top-10 finishes in his rookie season, Suarez proved success at NASCAR’s highest level is imminent. But, those numbers weren’t good enough for him.

“That’s not the rookie season that everyone wants, but sometimes that’s what makes you tougher,” Suarez said. “I feel like that can teach me a lot of things to prepare myself better for this year, and I feel like we are going to show that on the racetrack.”
The 26-year-old needs to take his performance to the next level by minimizing mistakes and taking advantage of every opportunity. Between his prowess and strong Toyota power, Suarez has all the potential to notch his first career win and become the first Mexican-born driver to win a Monster Energy Series race.
Suarez recorded his career-best third-place finish at Watkins Glen in 2017, so breaking into Victory Lane could very well come on a road course.
Erik Jones, No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry: Taking over a big-time Monster Energy Series ride after a champion held the seat is a tall task, but if anyone can handle it, it’s Erik Jones.
Jones will fill the No. 20 Toyota following Matt Kenseth’s five-year run with the organization. With one year of racing at the top level already under his belt, the 2017 Sunoco Rookie of the Year knows what to expect.
The 21-year-old driver earned five top fives and 14 top-10 finishes last season. All signs point to Jones building on those numbers and breaking into the win column in 2018 — sooner rather than later.
“There were a lot of unknowns last year at this point for myself, at least, going into a new series with a new team, a new group of guys,” Jones said. “It was just a lot of things that were really unsettled and weren’t really all figured out yet. At least having everybody in place, knowing Chris (Gayle) and knowing the Cup Series one year better than I did last is definitely an advantage. I have a better feel for the cars and everything to expect there and what’s going to be week in and week out and how the season kind of rolls and progresses.”

Enroth shuts out Germans

Iron Maiden’s classic song “Two Minutes to Midnight” came to mind when Sweden edged Germany 1-0 on Friday night for its second straight win.
It took two minutes for Tre Kronor to draw first blood. And at this 21:10 start, the winless Germans were doomed before midnight as Sweden stayed perfect in Group C.

Sweden has not allowed a goal yet in this tournament.

"It was a great effort by us," said German defenceman Bjorn Krupp. "Sweden is an unreal team, but we tried to do our best. Of course, you want to win the game, but 1-0 is good. We played well."
Viktor Stalberg scored for the Swedes in this hard and heavy game in front of 3,077 fans at the Kwandong Hockey Centre. The Germans showed their mettle with a gritty two-way effort and hit several posts. They deserved a better fate, but their scoring remains as weak as American beer. They lost 5-2 to Finland in their first game.

"It was a hard-puck game," said Stalberg. "They were battling. They play structured hockey and are hard to play against. They have a lot of big, strong guys. We knew they were going to make it hard on us. They stuck to their game plan very well. We had a good effort, but there are things we need to do better if we're going to be successful."

In goal, both Sweden’s Jhonas Enroth and Germany’s Timo Pielmeier saw their first Olympic action ever. Germany outshot Sweden 28-26 as Enroth, who played 156 NHL games and now backstops Dynamo Minsk, shone to earn his shutout.
After being a healthy scratch in the opening 4-0 win over Norway, Sweden’s budding superstar Rasmus Dahlin made his Olympic debut, taking the place of 31-year-old Patrik Hersley. The 17-year-old Frolunda Gothenburg product fit into the blue-and-yellow preliminary-round machine, despite seeing very limited minutes for coach Rikard Gronborg as a power play specialist.
Dahlin would become the first player under 18 to win Olympic gold if the Swedes capture their third title after Lillehammer 1994 and Turin 2006. Sweden is coming off silver in Sochi 2014, where it lost the final 3-0 to Canada.
Sweden got a great start. Stalberg took a pass from Patrick Zackrisson, split the German defence, and zapped a stick-side shot past Pielmeier at 2:00. The EV Zug winger showed the kind of wheels that helped him win the 2013 Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Stalberg described the play: "It was a quick turnaround and a good play by Bergstrom and a nice pass by Zackrisson in the middle. I was able to find some speed and beat the defenders there. With that much speed, I tried to move the puck from one side to the other and find a hole."
Past the midway mark of the first, Germany’s Dominik Kahun cut in from the right side and rang one off Enroth’s right post. That was the underdogs’ best chance of the period.
The flow bogged down in the second period as Sweden took five minor penalties to Germany’s three. Enroth stood his ground as the Germans pounded away. At the other end, Pielmeier came across to foil Fredrik Pettersson’s one-timer. German defenceman Gerrit Fauser blocked a shot and headed to the dressing room, grimacing in pain.

"Special teams are going to be a huge part of our success," said Krupp. "It's so important in international play. That's where most games are going to be decided."
After Germany took back-to-back minors, it was Sweden’s turn to play with fire. The Germans got a 5-on-3 for 1:10 with Par Lindholm and Stalberg in the box. They fired away and Kahun again rang one off the iron. German assistant captain Christian Ehrhoff was stunned when Johan Fransson’s slap shot rocked his helmet, but the veteran blueliner kept going.

"Our penalty kill has been great the first two games but the power play needs to come up a bit," Stalberg said. "We had some decent looks tonight, but we have to start scoring on that. It's going to be crucial."

The Germans showed no quit in the third period. Felix Schutz hit Enroth's right post about six minutes into the frame. With 1:34 left, David Wolf busted to the net on the backhander and ran into the Swedish goalie, but couldn't get the puck in.

German coach Marco Sturm called his timeout and pulled Pielmeier for the extra skater. Enroth made two fantastic in-tight saves on Schutz to preserve his shutout.
This was the sixth straight Swedish win over the reunified Germany, dating back to the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. Germany, back in the Olympics for the first time since 2010, has not won a game since beating Latvia 4-1 on 12 February 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Iron Maiden has confirmed it will play Sweden Rock 2018, and Sweden has confirmed it will play unbeaten Finland in a 21:10 Nordic showdown on Sunday for first place in the group. Play like a trooper or run to the hills will be the order of the day.
On Sunday, Germany faces winless Norway in a 12:10 battle for third and fourth place in Group C.

Finns too strong for Norway

Norway struck first through Patrick Thoresen, but Eeli Tolvanen sparked a revival as Finland collected its second win in Gangneung.
Eeli Tolvanen scored twice to help Finland overcome an early deficit and ease to a 5-1 victory against its Nordic neighbour.
Not many would have expected Norway to open the scoring in this one. Recent history has not been kind to the team, and you have to go back to 1994 for the last time the Norwegians won a game at the Olympics. That was a 3-1 classification round encounter with Austria in Lillehammer, good enough to lift the host nation one place above 10th and last place in the ranking. Moreover, Norway’s campaign in Korea began yesterday with a 0-4 loss to Sweden, while Finland eased to a 5-2 victory over the Germans.
But an early power play chance was gobbled up by veteran forward Patrick Thoresen in the seventh minute. Thoresen collected the puck following a massed scramble in front of Mikko Koskinen’s net and smashed it past his SKA clubmate to give Norway an unexpected 1-0 lead.
Finland, stung, pressed for a rapid response. But it took a Norwegian penalty – the third of the period – before the Leijonat drew level. Tolvanen, the latest star to emerge from the Finnish hockey production line, did the honours, meeting Sami Lepisto’s pass with a devastating one-timer that found its way through Lars Haugen’s defences.
Lepisto, who would add a power play goal of his own later in the game, is impressed with the Finns' PP - not just its effectiveness, but the frequency with which the team draws penalties.
"Our third and fourth lines are really good at battling in the corners," he said. "They take that first hit and keep their feet moving and I think that's a big key because the opposition defence can't really keep up for long shifts and they have to take penalties.
"We get our power play that way, and our power play is really clicking right now."
And it was Tolvanen – who else – who supplied the energy on Finland’s offense at the start of the second period. His trademark wrister drew a good blocker save from Haugen, but the Norwegian goalie had no answer in the 26th minute when the Jokerit youngster put the Finns in front. Jukka Peltola’s feed set Tolvanen off to the races and he showed great composure to beat the netminder with a well-executed deke. The 18-year-old now has three goals and three assists from two Olympic performances, and seems poised to justify all the pre-tournament hype around him by adding the much-needed spark to a Finnish forward line that looked better at hard work than fluent attacking play.
"I'm feeling pretty good about my own play," Tolvanen said. "I like scoring in every game, this is a big thing for me, but I'm just trying to go out and play my game, and have some fun."
Tolvanen also paid tribute to the team around him. "We look really good," he added. "Our power play is scoring, we're winning the puck, we're creating chances. And we're defending together. I think everyone is playing for the team."
Norway, meanwhile, threatened to spoil Tolvanen's fun in the middle period. Only a video review prevented it from tying the scores as Jani Lajunen sat out a penalty midway through the second period. Mathis Olimb smashed the puck into the goal after a shot bounced back off the boards, but the video showed it had come back into play off the netting and the play was ruled out.
The Norwegians never got as close again. Early in the third, Finland extended its advantage after a breakdown in communication between Haugen and defenceman Alexander Bonsaksen saw Veli-Matti Savinainen steal the puck on the slot. The KHL-based forward gratefully accepted the gift to make it 3-1 and leave Norway with too much to do. And another power play saw Finland make it four when Sami Lepisto fired home from the blue line as Joonas Kemppainen put up a big screen on Haugen.
"Usually I like to give the pass there, but it was such a great screen from Kemppainen and I could see the lane and I went for it," Lepisto added. "It ended up going in!"
A passage of play late on summed up Norway's luck. Stefan Espeland's shot from the point was deflected past Koskinen, but bounced to safety off the post. Then, at the other end, Sakari Manninen added a fifth after more hesitant defence left Haugen exposed once again.
Finland improves to 2-and-0 in Gangneung, and will secure top spot in Group C - and with it a bye to the quarter-finals - if it gets the better of Sweden in its final game of the opening phase.

Kovalchuk, Kaprizov shine

Ilya Kovalchuk would not be denied, not today. The sensational KHLer took control of this game, and Krill Kaprizov followed suit.

The result was a convincing win in which Kovalchuk had two goals and an assist and Kaprizov a hat trick.
But it wasn’t just that Kovalchuk had three points; it’s that he was all over the ice, rushing like Kharlamov, passing like Larionov, and leading like Fetisov. When all was said and done, the Slovenes were helpless.
"It was a tough game," conceded Slovene captain Jan Mursak, who scored his team's only goal. "They outplayed us -- faster, stronger, more skilled. We knew that they would have a very strong team and it would be hard to compete with them. We worked hard, but we were still making some mistakes that they scored on."
Group B has now become wide open. The Americans are in first place with four points, followed by OAR and Slovakia with three, and Slovenia now in last with two points.
Slovenia started the game with a strategy that made it difficult, if not impossible, to beat the superior OAR team. The Slovenes simply tried to relieve the pressure around their goalie, Luka Gracnar, with a chip it out-chip it over strategy, but that can work only for so long and it almost prevented them from scoring as much as their opponents.
Still, for mush of the first period it worked, but the Athletes remained patient and were rewarded with two late goals. The first, from Sergei Mozyakin, was a blast from the slot on a power play at 18:23.
Then, just 22 seconds later, Ilya Kovalchuk danced his way around the Slovene end before stopping and firing a quick shot. The puck hit Slovene forward Jan Urbas and bounced past Gracnar for a quick 2-0 lead.
The Athletes turned it on in the second, and their opponents had little in the way of response. Alexander Barbanov made it 3-0 on another power play at 6:00, and soon after Ilya Kablukov wired a shot off the post on a penalty shot after being hauled down on a clean break.
Kovalchuk then created the next goal off a great rush, dishing the puck to Kablukov at 8:48. Kirill Kaprizov made it 5-0 just 74 seconds later off a one-timer.
Slovenia finally got on the board on their first power play chance of the night when Miha Verlic made a nice pass around the goal to Mursak, who tucked it behind Vasili Koshechkin.
But Kovalchuk wasn’t yet done. He started a play out of his end with a stretch pass and finished the play with a bullet shot to the short side of Gracnar, an awesome display of firepower that finished a sensational period for him.
Kaprizov got two ni the third to complete his hat trick and Ziga Pance finished the scoring with a goal with just 32.9 seconds remaining.

Donato's pair sinks Slovaks

Ryan Donato scored twice, including the third-period power play winner, as the U.S. edged Slovakia 2-1 on Friday for its first victory of the 2018 Olympics.

In this tight affair, the U.S. rebounded to secure an important three points in Group B after blowing a 2-0 lead and falling 3-2 in overtime to underdog Slovenia in their opener. The Slovaks failed to sustain the momentum they created in their 3-2 comeback win over the favored Olympic Athletes from Russia. The Americans will face the OAR team on Saturday.

"Tonight we came out, tried to play, kept that out of our minds," said U.S. defenceman James Wisniewski about bouncing back from the opening loss. "Right now we're happy with the three points and we'll look forward to tomorrow."
Jan Laco, named Best Goalie at the 2012 Worlds en route to silver, gave Slovakia a chance with 29 saves. Ryan Zapolski made his second straight start for the U.S. and had 21 saves.

About facing the OAR team next, Zapolski said: "I'm used to playing the Russians all the time in the KHL so it's not going to be weird for me. I don't think anybody is going to be overtaken by the moment. We're doing the same as we've done our whole lives."

Andrej Kudrna replied for the Slovaks.

"We played solid 5-on-5, but we took too many penalties and that gave them two power play goals that won them the game," said Slovakia's Ladislav Nagy. "If we played 5-on-5, it would have been a solid game."
The Americans, seeking their first medal since silver in Vancouver in 2010 and first gold since Lake Placid in 1980, took more than six minutes to register their first shot on goal. But it took only 18 seconds for them to capitalize on their first man advantage. On the rush, Troy Terry beautifully drew two Slovak defenders to him and then sent the puck back to Donato, who whizzed it past Laco at 7:10.
Donato, a 21-year-old college forward, plays for his father Ted, the Harvard head coach, who appeared at the 1992 Olympics and played three Worlds in addition to 796 NHL games.

Donato said he got advice from his dad: "When I talked to him on the phone, he said: ‘Don’t shoot so high anymore. Don’t shoot for the top shelf! Shoot low blocker, glove. At first when I got the puck, I immediately thought: ‘Blocker!’ It went in, so it was definitely a good feeling."
Just 25 seconds later, the Slovaks tied it up. Kudrna used a sneaky touch to deflect captain Tomas Surovy’s backhanded pass through Zapolski. Kudrna (Sparta Praha), an Olympic rookie winger at 29, made his IIHF World Championship debut last year with one goal.
Laco was alert to foil Bobby Butler with his right arm on a partial breakaway with under three minutes left in the opening stanza, and Terry when he dipsy-doodled to the net shortly afterwards. Terry, a University of Denver star who led the 2017 U.S. World Junior team to gold with his shootout skills, was a threat all game long.
In the second period, the Americans dominated possession, peppering Laco with shots, but failing to convert. The Slovaks had a good chance when Lukas Cingel jumped in and forced Zapolski to make a quick left pad save. Defenceman Michal Cajkovsky, the only KHLer on Slovakia, was shaken up when he blocked a Wisniewski one-timer on the power play.

Caught with too men on the ice early in the third, the Slovaks paid the price. Chris Bourque found Donato down low, and he pivoted and slipped the puck between Laco's pads at 2:51.

"That was a goal-scorer’s goal," said Terry. "He spun, got around the stick and tucked it five-hole. It was a great play."
The Slovaks had a chance to strike back when Terry went off for high-sticking defenceman Tomas Starosta, but they couldn't generate anything. Pulling Laco in the final minute was too little, too late.

The Americans made one roster change from the Slovenia loss, subbing forward Chad Kolarik (Adler Mannheim) in for Jim Slater (HC Fribourg-Gotteron).

Looking ahead to Slovakia's next game versus Slovenia, Nagy said: "Slovenia has an unbelievable team. They beat the USA, they play really good defensively. It's going to be a hard game again, but we're going to be ready for it."
This was the first 2018 Olympic game pitting a pair of former NHL head coaches against each other. The U.S.’s Tony Granato, who competed in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary for the seventh-place American squad, helmed the Colorado Avalanche in 2002-03, 2003-04, and 2008-09. Slovakia’s Craig Ramsay, the 1984-85 Selke Trophy winner with the Buffalo Sabres, led the Sabres in 1986-87, the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000-01, and the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010-11. Both also have extensive experience as NHL assistant coaches.
It was just the fourth all-time Olympic encounter between the U.S. and Slovakia. They tied 3-3 in 1994, Slovakia won 2-1 in 2006, and the Americans won 7-1 in 2014.