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.”

Canucks GM wants Miller back, bringing rebuild into question again

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For one fine trade deadline, it seemed like the Vancouver Canucks and GM Jim Benning saw the light.

They actually moved veterans for assets, and interesting ones in that. They were, gasp, considered one of the winners of the trade deadline. There was the indication that a rebuild might finally be in action. Better late than never, right?

Well … maybe that was just a brief reprieve.

The Vancouver Province’s Ben Kuzma reports that Benning threw the word “competitive” around when describing why he wants to re-sign 37-year-old Ryan Miller and why he isn’t looking to trade valued defenseman Chris Tanev and declining blueliner Alex Edler.

Sensible if debatable

His reluctance regarding moving the two defensemen is easier to understand. Tanev, 27, is in his prime at a nice cap hit ($4.45 million through 2019-20). A competitive team would want him, and if Benning is convinced the Canucks are close to being just that, then it makes sense.

Edler staying is a little simpler. He has a no-trade clause and doesn’t want to go.

Now, one can argue that Tanev would be best served being moved for high-quality pieces. And perhaps Benning should at least try to convince Edler to accept a trade.

A strange direction in net

But Miller?

“As we’re transitioning these young players into our lineup, I feel that if we have solid goaltending on a night-to-night basis, we can be competitive,” Benning said Thursday, according to Kuzma.

Now, that story discusses why Miller may or may not accept a return, but one would guess that he won’t have a ton of offers. At least not offers that would involve a chance for more “platoon” or even starter-type work rather than explicitly labeling him a backup.

Really, that’s beside the point, because it’s confounding that Vancouver wouldn’t want to go in a younger direction.

You can read that sort of discussion as the Canucks once again wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They seemingly want to “reload” instead of “rebuild.”

Perhaps there’s some smoke-screening going on here. Maybe Benning’s more interested in moving parts than he lets on; it could be that he wants to drive up Tanev’s price by playing coy about moving him.

Still, on their face, the comments don’t exactly inspire confidence for a fan base that must be getting a little irritated by management that, to many, seems delusional about this team’s potential.

Penguins’ Sullivan believes resiliency is ‘strength of this team’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz stood shoulder to shoulder at center ice as midnight approached, crowd on its feet, Prince of Wales Trophy in hand. Another shot at the Stanley Cup in the offing.

On the surface, it could have been a scene ripped from 2008 when the longtime Pittsburgh Penguin teammates earned their first crack at a championship together, the one that was supposed to be the launching pad for a dynasty.

A closer look at the weary, grateful smiles told a different story.

This team has learned over the last decade that nothing can be taken for granted. Not their individual greatness or postseason success, even for one of the NHL’s marquee franchises. Not the cohesion it takes to survive the crucible of the most draining championship chase in professional team sports or the mental toughness (along with a dash of luck) needed to stay on top once you get there.

So Crosby paused in the giddy aftermath of Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the helter-skelter Eastern Conference finals to do something the two-time Hart Trophy winner almost never does. He took stock of the moment, aware of how fleeting they can be.

“Every series you look at, the margin for error is so slim,” Crosby said. “We’ve just continued to find ways and different guys have stepped up. We trust in that and we believe in that and whoever has come in the lineup has done a great job. That builds confidence. We’ve done it different ways, which is probably our biggest strength.”

And they’ll have to do it one more time in the final against swaggering Nashville if they want to become the first team in nearly 20 years and the first in salary-cap era to win back-to-back championships.

It’s a daunting task. When the puck drops in Game 1 on Monday night in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be playing in their 108th game in the last calendar year, and that doesn’t count another half dozen for those who played in the World Cup of Hockey and a handful of exhibition games.

Pittsburgh, however, has survived to do something even Chicago and Los Angeles – who have combined for five of the seven Cups awarded since 2010 – could not in putting itself in positon for a repeat.

Credit coach Mike Sullivan’s ever-prescient tinkering with the lineups, including his decision to throw Kunitz back into the fray with Crosby as Game 7 wore on, an experiment that ended with Crosby feeding Kunitz for the winner 5:09 into the second overtime .

Credit goaltender Matt Murray, thrust back into the lineup when Marc-Andre Fleury‘s hot play that helped carry the Penguins through the opening two rounds finally cooled.

Credit a maturity – or maybe it’s wisdom – from the team leaders who watched the first half of the decade come and go with plenty of gaudy regular-season numbers but no Cup banners to join the one they captured in 2009.

Pinning down what changed is difficult. General manager Jim Rutherford’s ability to remake the team on the fly to build one of the fastest lineups in the league helped. So did Sullivan’s ability to cut through the noise when he replaced the professorial Mike Johnston in December 2015.

Yet the Penguins understand there’s something else at work too, a resiliency and accountability they lacked while falling to lower-seeded teams every year from 2010-14.

“I believe that the resolve and the resilience of this team is the strength of this team,” Sullivan said.

Both were on full display in Game 7.

Kunitz, who missed the first-round series against Columbus with a lower-body injury, returned to see himself bumped from the first line to the fourth, scored his first two goals of the playoffs. Conor Sheary, a blurring revelation last spring who suddenly found himself a healthy scratch in Games 5 and 6 against the Senators, returned to set up Kunitz’s first goal .

Justin Schultz, who has assumed the as the minute-hogging, puck-moving defenseman role held by the injured Kris Letang, returned from his own health scare and scored a go-ahead goal in the third period.

If the Penguins were a force of nature last spring while earning the franchise’s fourth Cup, this one is more of a throwback. More blue collar. More anonymous.

Some of the key cogs that helped Pittsburgh get to this point – rookie forward Jake Guentzel, 37-year-old playoff newcomer Ron Hainsey and career grinder Scott Wilson – weren’t even around last spring. Yet they and so many others not named Crosby or Malkin have become equal partners in pursuit of a title.

“This year it’s been back and forth, it’s been tough,” Kunitz said. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night.”

It hasn’t been pretty. So what? Perhaps the biggest sign of the team’s growth is it has abandoned the pursuit of style points for something far more tangible. Like a 34-pound piece of hardware, one Pittsburgh has no intention of handing off anytime soon.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Breaking: Predators’ Laviolette has not tried Nashville’s ‘hot chicken’ yet

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Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette dropped a bombshell on “The Dan Patrick Show.” Some of us are still reeling from the revelation.

It turns out that Laviolette hasn’t tried “hot chicken” yet.

Laviolette explained that, if he had the “bird that bites back” before a game, he’d be on fire behind the bench. Sadly, Dan Patrick let him off the hook and didn’t ask “Well, what about off days, Lavi?”

(They might not be on a lazy hockey nickname basis yet, though, to be fair.)

All kidding aside, Laviolette provided more insight on the Predators’ Stanley Cup Final run – and not a lot more hot chicken hot takes – in the longer interview below.

Note: This post’s author may or may not have gone a year in Nashville without trying hot chicken either. Hey, Laviolette’s been there for three seasons now. Way worse.

‘Making Gretzky’s head bleed’ wasn’t so easy for ‘Swingers’ filmmaker

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Remember that classic (and very NSFW) video game hockey scene from “Swingers?” The one where Vince Vaughn espouses the virtues of Jeremy Roenick? It was pretty great, right?

There was something so organic about two friends getting up to video-game shenanigans (and discussing which 16-bit era game featured the best pixelated violence), but apparently it was easier to set the scene that it was to “make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed.”

The Ringer’s Achievement Oriented podcast caught up with Doug Liman (pictured with Jon Favreau in this post’s main image) for some hysterical background information on getting that highly amusing scene right.

“I had never actually seen Wayne Gretzky draw blood, but Vince [Vaughn] claimed he could do it repeatedly, so we put it in the script,” Liman said. “The actors are reacting to that. And then we’re editing the movie and I bring the [game console] into the editing room and we start playing it and we’re recording it onto a videotape so that when we get the one piece we need we’ll play that back on the TV and shoot it. [We do this] for, like, weeks. Nobody can draw blood. And I’m like [to] Nintendo, ‘Hey, can you give us the backdoor key to doing this?’ It wasn’t like we were having fun playing the game, because all we would do was pass the puck down and set it up for Gretzky to get the puck and then we would, you know, try to slam him into the boards.”

Like a rare athletic feat, they got it right, but don’t ask Liman to pull it off on a whim. Liman sure made it seem like they were lucky to ever commit that moment to film.

Liman explained that it was “infuriatingly fleeting” and not the sort of video game trick that you could make work over and over again once you learned the right combination of button presses.

This is some really funny, fantastic background information on the movie that launched the careers of Favreau and Vaughn. It also helped remind us of that golden 16-bit era of EA NHL games, whether you preferred NHL ’94, ’95, or ’96. (And so on.)

Liman also shares a very amusing story about how hockey video game skills don’t exactly translate to the real sport, so check out the transcript and the full podcast for more.

And, if you’re playing a modern game like NHL ’17, don’t pick on “Super Fan 87.” Be nice to your friends. That’s the money move.

Here’s the scene itself. Again, a warning: there is strong language and 16-bit “gore.”