Alexander Ovechkin

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.

Unbeaten no more: Canucks fall to Kings in shootout for first loss

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 22:  Tanner Pearson #70 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates his goal with Nic Dowd #26 and Dustin Brown #23 in front of Alexander Edler #23 of the Vancouver Canucks to take a 2-0 lead during the first period at Staples Center on October 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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One of the biggest early surprises of the 2016-17 NHL season was the fact the Vancouver Canucks were the NHL’s only unbeaten team entering play on Saturday. Not Washington. Not Pittsburgh. Not Tampa Bay. Not Chicago. Not Dallas.


Their stunning four-game winning streak to open the season came to an end on Saturday night when they opened up a brief two-game road trip in Los Angeles with a 4-3 shootout loss to the Kings, handing them first loss of the season and making it so all 30 NHL teams now have at least one loss this season.

The Canucks have made a habit so far this season out of falling behind early and rallying for overtime or shootout wins, and they nearly did it again on Saturday. After spotting the Kings a 3-0 lead early in the second period Vancouver came back with three consecutive goals, including a game-tying goal from defenseman Alex Edler in the final minute to send the game to overtime. But the Canucks know that is not a sustainable long-term strategy and that eventually their luck in those games is going to run out.

On Saturday, it kind of did.

Tanner Pearson scored the only goal in the shootout to give the Kings the win.

As tough as this two-game road trip through Los Angeles and Anaheim looks, playing both teams within 24 hours, the Canucks seemed to catch a little bit of a break when the Kings had to turn to Peter Budaj, their third string goalie, after Jeff Zatkoff was injured in the morning skate on Saturday. With regular starting goalie Jonathan Quick already sidelined it seemed to be a good opportunity for the Canucks to extend their winning streak against a goalie that has only played 38 games in the NHL since the start of the 2012-13 season (with below average numbers during that stretch).

But Budaj was able to do just enough to get the win, stopping 22 out of 25 shots through regulation and overtime and not giving up any goals in the shootout.

Even with the loss, the Canucks still managed to pick up a point and have earned nine out of a possible 10 points to start the season. No matter how they did it, collecting points like that is never a bad thing. They have now played four overtime games this season and the one game that did not go overtime was still decided by a single goal. If nothing else you have to give them a ton of credit for keeping things interesting.

The Canucks are back in action on Sunday against the Ducks before returning home for a three-game homestand.

Juuse Saros helps Predators shut down, dominate the champs

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 28:  In his first career NHL game goalie Juuse Saros #1 of the Nashville Predators plays against the Buffalo Sabres at Bridgestone Arena on November 28, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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Weird times in Nashville right now as a significant portion of the Predators’ roster is sidelined by food poisoning. They went into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh without Mike Fisher, Craig Smith, Colton Sissons and starting goaltender Pekka Rinne all out of the lineup. That meant a bunch of call-ups and a rookie goaltender getting the start against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

While the Penguins were also playing without Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, it is still a very formidable lineup (one that just rallied to beat San Jose the other night). That is part of what made Nashville’s 5-1 win so convincing and impressive.

The Predators used a four-goal second period, including a pair of goals from Kevin Fiala, to pick up their second win of the season and what is easily their most impressive of the two.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the play of 21-year-old goalie Juuse Saros, playing in only his second NHL game.

Saros stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced to pick up his very first NHL win. Things got off to a rough start for him when Nashville’s defense got caught up the ice and created an odd-man rush for the Penguins that resulted in a Scott Wilson goal less than a minute into the game. After that one blemish on the scoresheet Saros was flawless the rest of the night.

It was a really special night for Saros not only because of the win and the way he played, but because Marc-Andre Fleury started at the other end of the ice for Pittsburgh. Saros said after the game that Fleury has been an idol of his.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Predators after a season-opening win against Chicago. Even though it’s been a slow start, this should still be a team that is going to compete for the Western Conference crown once they get their full roster on the ice.

The Maple Leafs fell apart late (again)

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 15:  James Reimer #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks to stop a shot by Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on February 15, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Maple leafs 7-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No matter how much young talent the Toronto Maple Leafs have on their roster (and they have a lot) this was still always going to be another long season. The organization is on the right track, but it’s not where it needs to be just quite yet.

There will be flashes of brilliance and potential, but there are still going to be some pretty significant growing pains and a lot of frustration along the way.

Just five games into the season, they have already experienced plenty of the latter.

First there was rookie sensation Auston Matthews scoring four goals in his NHL debut and the team still finding a way to lose the game.

Then there was the game in Winnipeg where they jumped out to a 4-0 lead and then ended up losing in overtime. Earlier this week they let another third period lead slip away against Minnesota.

On Saturday, they added another one to the list in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

For 57 minutes it looked as if the young Maple Leafs were going to add to the Blackhawks’ early season woes as they held a 4-2 lead and seemed to be in control of the game. The young players were scoring goals, they were the latest team to beat the Blackhawks’ shoddy penalty killing unit, and they seemed on their way to a big early season win on the road against a top team.

Then everything fell apart. Again.

Chicago’s Artem Anisimov scored with less than three minutes to play to cut the deficit to one.

Then just one minute later Richard Panik (former Toronto Maple Leaf Richard Panik) continued his early season goal scoring surge by netting his league leading sixth goal of the year to tie the game and send it to overtime.

After the two teams failed to score in the 3-on-3, it went to a shootout where Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin scored goals to help the Blackhawks get back into the win column and sent the Maple Leafs home with another tough loss.

If you’re an optimist in Toronto you have to look at the fact that this young, talented Maple Leafs team has at least earned a point in all but one of its first five games.

They are competing, they are showing signs of being an entertaining team with a strong foundation in place.

They have actually had the lead going into the third period of every game they have played.

Yet here they are, five games into the season, still sitting with only one win.

The Jimmy Vesey show leads Rangers over Capitals

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Jimmy Vesey #26 of the New York Rangers waits for the faceoff against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on October 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin had the big highlight early in the game on Saturday night, but it was New York Rangers rookie Jimmy Vesey that ended up stealing the show.

Vesey scored a pair of goals for the Rangers — the first multi-goal game of his career —  to help lead his team to a 4-2 win in Washington.

Even though he had never played a game in the NHL before this season, Vesey was still one of the most sought after free agents this summer after he completed his college career at Harvard. He eventually signed an entry level deal with the Rangers, and given how much attention his free agency saga generated it seemed hard to believe that he could ever match the hype. Especially given the track record of players signed as free agents coming out of college (it’s not a great one).

It’s obviously still very early in his career, but so far Vesey has not disappointed in New York.

Saturday was by far his best performance of the season, scoring both of his goals just three minutes apart in the second period. The first goal tied the game at two to help erase a two-goal deficit, and then his second goal proved to be the game winner.

It was also a heck of a play.

Rick Nash would add an empty net goal late in the third period to put the game away for the Rangers while Henrik Lundqvist stopped 26 of the 28 shots he faced.

For Washington, the loss is its first regulation loss of the season and snaps what had been a three-game winning streak.