PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Are expectations too high for Russia?

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SOCHI, Russia — Canada got the job done in Vancouver. Can the Russians in Sochi?

For Alex Ovechkin, it’s a question he’s faced countless times already, the frequency of the queries growing higher and higher as the most important international tournament of his career drew closer.

Last month, he said he was trying not to dwell on the daunting task facing him and his Russian teammates.

“I don’t think about it because I don’t want to take pressure right now on me,” Ovechkin said. “But it’s kind of hard to do. Every time when I go to the news and on the Internet, I just see about the Olympic Games.”

Well, Ovechkin arrived Monday in the Black Sea resort city, where he’ll be the host country’s face of the Games, for better or worse. If the pressure of the Olympics was tough to ignore before, it’s mission impossible now.

Earlier this week, Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov tried to downplay the burden of expectations.

“I think our players, they have good experience,” said Bilyaletdinov. “I don’t think they will feel bad, I mean will feel big pressure. They’re strong players, good players. I think they’re OK.”

And with star forwards like Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk, there’s certainly no shortage of top-end talent. Just imagine the first-unit power-play. Goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov, whichever one is between the pipes, should be tough to beat as well.

But while the expectations are the same for Russia in 2014 as they were for Canada in 2010 – it’s gold or bust, just to be clear – there’s reason to wonder if the final results may be dramatically different. Instead of a celebration like the one that Sidney Crosby’s golden goal set off in Vancouver and across the entire Great White North, the Russians could very well be left heartbroken and searching for answers, just like they were four years ago.

Two big question marks for Russia are depth and the blue line.

On the subject of depth, nine KHL players were named to the Russian side. No disrespect to that league, but it’s not the NHL. Currently among the KHL’s leading scorers: former middling NHLers Brandon Bochenski, Nigel Dawes and Kyle Wilson.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for having players who are used to the bigger international ice surface, and maybe the KHLers can provide an element of surprise. But when Canada’s depth – not to mention the Americans’ and the Swedes’ — includes legitimate NHL stars, it stands to reason there are going to be some mismatches should Russia ever come up against the defending gold medalists.

The defense, meanwhile, will be led by NHL veterans Andrei Markov and Fedor Tyutin, along with the younger Slava Voynov. All good players, but compared to Canada’s star-studded blue line, well, there’s just no comparison.

“Play D,” Tyutin said Monday when asked what he and his fellow blue-liners have to do to be successful. “Simple as that.”

Also no doubt lingering in the minds of the Russians is their humiliating quarterfinal exit in 2010, a 7-3 loss to Canada that led goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to deliver the famous line: “They came out like gorillas out of a cage.”

Bryzgalov expanded: “It’s really simple, we lost all the battles.  We turned the puck over too much. We lost every aspect of the game. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. We lost the battles around the walls. It’s a simple game, hockey, you know.”

Four years later, Russian sports writer Igor Rabiner believes it’s imperative to take advantage of playing at home.

“We’ve been going backwards,” Rabiner told the New York Times. “In Albertville in ’92, before NHL players could join the team, we won. Since then, and now that all the best players in the world are at the Games, look at what has happened. We’ve done worse and worse. In Nagano, second place. In Salt Lake City, third place. In Turin, fourth place. In Vancouver, sixth place. So there is a feeling that, this time, with home ice, this is the only way.”

In 2010, after that devastating loss to Canada, Ovechkin pleaded, “Don’t judge our team by one game. We are still strong.”

And now, finally, here’s his chance to prove it.

“Of course I think about [winning gold at home],” he said Monday after practice. “Of course I want to do that. But it’s still a long way. It’s going to be hard way. But it’s my dream.”

Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

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As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. Johnny Gaudreau generated his 200th point (and 201st) in Calgary’s win, while Alex Steen generated four assists. (Vladimir Tarasenko also enjoyed a three-point night.)

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Brian Gionta scored in his 1,000th game as Buffalo won, by the way.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?