Sochi notes: Pressure is a factor, but it’s not always THE factor

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Hello from the other side of the world. The Russian team has a press conference here shortly. In the meantime, here are some Sochi notes:

—- If you thought all this pressure talk was overblown, I asked Ken Holland yesterday if he’d ever seen pressure get to a team, and he said, “Oh yeah, absolutely.”

Granted, he also said, “Any time you get into sports, there’s pressure. You want to win and the people you’re playing against want to win. I think when you’re involved in sports, you go into a cocoon. When we were in Vancouver, for two weeks you’re down in the locker room, you worry about practice. You have to come out occasionally to talk to media and you go back in.”

Somewhat unconvinced, I asked if that was easier said than done, for players to “go into a cocoon,” making specific reference to Alex Ovechkin, the face of the Sochi Games, who may not be able to hide out in the locker room the whole tournament.

Holland clarified.

“Does everyone here understand the significance of the tournament? Absolutely,” he said. “But do I think they wake up tomorrow morning and they’re thinking about that? No, they’re going to do the same thing tomorrow that they did in Washington or Detroit or Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh or Chicago. They’re creatures of habit, and that’s how they perform at their best.”

Holland also warned against the assumption that, if a team doesn’t win, it’s because the pressure got to the players.

“Sometimes that it is the case,” he said. “Sometimes…these are good teams.”

And only one can win gold.

(Related: Are expectations too high for Russia?)

—- I really liked this answer from Mike Babcock about the keys to scoring on the bigger international ice.

“It’s so easy to be stuck on the outside on the big ice and think you are doing something because you are standing in your zone and you are just standing there,” he said. “In the end you have got to get on the inside to score.

“You have got to be inside the dots. If you hang out, open on the wall, in North America you still might be able to score, but here you are not going to.”

Apparently Ralph Krueger – Team Canada’s big-ice consultant – has been telling reporters the same thing.

And that’s why size is still important on the big ice, even if speed is the factor that gets the most attention.

—- Funniest quote of yesterday’s media blitz goes to Ken Hitchcock, responding to a question about how Canada’s coaching staff – which features four NHL bench bosses – works.

Surely it’s not a democracy, the reporter said.

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship,” said Hitchcock.

Tito Babcock. That’s his nickname for the rest of the Olympics. Deal? (Look it up.)

—- Pavel Datsyuk just said that he’s going to play Thursday versus Slovenia, but I have no idea how effective he’ll be with what’s believed to be a left knee injury. (It’s also been reported as a groin injury.)

Whatever the ailment — maybe it’s both those things — if Datsyuk can’t be Datsyuk, the Russians have a big problem. When healthy he’s one of the best two-way forwards in the game. When less than 100 percent, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be able to keep up with the most dangerous non-Russian scorers in the world, of which Canada, Sweden, and the United States have their fair share.

—- Lots of talk yesterday about adjusting to the time change after arriving in Sochi. Babcock semi-joked that Team Canada practiced in the evening so the players wouldn’t go to bed.

“Keep the players up,” he said. “It has been a long day, so we thought if we did some exercise at this time of night we would have a better chance of staying up until midnight.”

American forward Ryan Callahan said something similar after skating even later in the evening than the Canadians did.

“Yeah, it was a long day,” he said. “But to get adjusted to the time change, you’ve got to get on the ice and get the blood moving a little bit, and make sure you’re not sleeping. But the legs felt heavy out there.”

For the record, I’ve been here over a week now, and my inner clock is still a bit off. Though, granted, I may not be a good comparable to use. Discipline is not my middle name, and I’m not a finely tuned professional athlete. I had pretzels for breakfast this morning.

The West’s next round is now set (and wide-open)

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Saturday was a great day for fans of brevity and revenge.

Three of a possible three series ended on this day, with the Rangers dispatching the Canadiens, the Blues eliminating the “better” Wild, and the Oilers knocking off the Sharks in six.

The Rangers await either the Bruins or Senators and the Penguins face the winner of the Leafs – Capitals series out East, but we now know how the West shakes out.

St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

Both teams provided some of the upsets of this young postseason. Each features a red-hot goalie in Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne. Interesting.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

There will be a lot of orange. We may also see a ton of goals with Ryan Getzlaf on fire, Oscar Klefbom headlining the list of unhealthy players and Connor McDavid possibly able to really take off against a Ducks defense that is beat up in its own right.

It’s already been a strange season out West, with the Kings missing the playoffs and first-round exits for the Sharks and Blackhawks. Get ready – and giddy – for things to get even weirder as the postseason goes along.

Oilers win first series since 2006 after Sharks fall crossbar short of overtime

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After making the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the Edmonton Oilers weren’t just “happy to be there.” They confirmed as much by eliminating the San Jose Sharks with a 3-1 victory in Game 6, winning the series 4-2.

Yes, those young Oilers just eliminated the team that represented the West in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Wow.

Ultimately, winning the breakaway battle in the second period indeed made the difference. Leon Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev scored on their chances in the middle frame while Patrick Marleau could not; Slepyshev’s 2-0 goal ultimately became the series-clincher.

Now, that’s not to say that Marleau was a drag on San Jose. If this is it for one of the faces of the franchise, he had a great 2016-17, including generating the Sharks’ final goal of the postseason.

The Shark Tank was alive after Marleau reduced the Oilers’ lead to 2-1, and more than a few blood pressures rose – both in Edmonton and San Jose – after the Sharks got this close to tying things up.

Wow.

With this result, the West is set. The St. Louis Blues will take on the Nashville Predators while the Oilers face the Anaheim Ducks.

As much as people try to put the training wheels on Connor McDavid & Co., the West is wide-open enough that it’s not so outrageous to imagine a big run for Edmonton.

Beating the Sharks is a pretty nice way of adding an exclamation point to that statement win. And hey … they beat the Sharks last time around, too.

Canadiens sound a lot like Wild after playoff exit (without ‘better team’ talk)

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Much like the Minnesota Wild earlier on Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens are stunned to approach the golf courses so rapidly.

Many of the responses after the New York Rangers eliminated them in Game 6 sound a lot like what the Wild uttered, though there’s no potential bulletin board material like Bruce Boudreau’s line about the better team failing to win four games.

Max Pacioretty viewed this early exit as a “missed opportunity” and never really believed that an elimination was coming.

Claude Julien provided parallel comments to Bruce Boudreau, believing that Montreal generated chances but lacked “finish.”

Brendan Gallagher? He worries that this might have been the Canadiens’ best chance, something the Wild must also worry about with a difficult offseason ahead.

Now, it’s likely that most teams speak about being shocked and expecting better after being booted from the postseason.

Still, these reactions do shine a light on the staggering nature of some of these exits. Will the likes of the Blackhawks, Canadiens and Wild struggle to be in such prime positions in the future? With the Sharks needing a comeback against the Oilers, could the trend continue on Saturday?

The bottom line is that, instead of preparing for a Game 7 after winning the Atlantic Division, the Canadiens are packing up their stuff and worrying about re-signing Carey Price. That’s a pretty stunning turnaround, regardless of the soundbytes available.

Video: Draisaitl, Slepyshev score on breakaways, Talbot spurns Marleau

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Some playoff games or even series come down to something as stupidly simple as one team taking advantage of their opportunities while the other fails to capitalize on chances.

If Game 6 of the Oilers – Sharks series follows the story of the second period, then San Jose may join Saturday’s stream of eliminated teams.

It’s not fair to boil it down to three breakaways, but some might feel that way.

Leon Draisaitl looked like a gritty, strong veteran during his first career playoff goal, bulling his way to the net for 1-0 breakaway tally. About a minute later, Anton Slepyshev was even more alone against Martin Jones, and he scored his first postseason goal to make it 2-0.

That stings for the Sharks, and it doesn’t help that they had a similar chance not long after. This time around, Patrick Marleau couldn’t beat Cam Talbot, so it remained 2-0 for Edmonton.

That’s the same score as the game enters the third period, even with some dangerous late chances for the Sharks.

If the Sharks don’t score at least two goals in the third, their push to return to the Stanley Cup Final could end in the first round.