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.

Video: Connor McDavid shows off speed and skill (again)

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Connor McDavid‘s 26th goal of 2016-17 was a lot like many others: an impressive display of skill and speed. He didn’t blaze past the Anaheim Ducks like has against opponents on other occasions, but his rare wheels still came in handy.

Maybe more than sheer speed, this tally is a reminder that McDavid could do impressive things while losing little or no momentum. It’s one thing to have straight-line speed, but he has the hands and hockey IQ to take advantage of his swift skating.

McDavid already has two points in this one, pushing him to 84 points. He also extended his point streak to five games (three goals, six assists if he stays at one of each on Wednesday).

Islanders grab precious points by beating Rangers

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The goal posts might move from time to time – now they’re chasing the Boston Bruins more than the Toronto Maple Leafs – but the bottom line is that the New York Islanders need to get it done to make the playoffs.

They still have some climbing to do, but Wednesday represented a step in the right direction with a tough 3-2 win against the New York Rangers.

The Rangers built 1-0 and 2-1 leads in the second period as John Tavares struggled with a “hat trick” of penalties, but Tavares & Co. wouldn’t give up. They managed two power-play goals in the third (one by Nikolay Kulemin, the winner by Andrew Ladd) to turn things around for a significant win.

Anders Lee was also a big part of the win, grabbing a goal and an assist. The biggest difference-maker may very well have been Thomas Greiss, who stopped 34 of 36 shots (including all 11 in the third) as the Rangers created a lot of offense.

The Islanders now have 80 standings points, placing them two behind the Bruins for the East’s final wild card spot.

The Rangers’ hold over the first wild card seems quite secure, but they do have to worry ever so slightly about their play at home. With this defeat, they’ve now lost seven straight (0-5-2) at Madison Square Garden.

Video: Rick Nash scores 20th goal in sprawling style

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Rick Nash has his critics stemming from his playoff struggles in the past, but for those who support him, moments like these are satisfying.

Why? Because you’d be absurd to discredit how hard he tries when Nash scores goals like he did for the New York Rangers against the New York Islanders on Wednesday.

Nash went all-out for his 20th goal of the season, sprawling after scoring against Thomas Greiss. It’s quite a sight, and Getty Images really was on top of that one.

via Getty Images

The Rangers may need more from him tonight, however, as the Islanders just went up 3-2. Watch the remainder of the contest on NBCSN.

Leafs pass Bruins for third in Atlantic after gutsy win against Columbus

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It wasn’t pretty – especially if you’re disgusted by that Roman Polak hit – but the Toronto Maple Leafs keep generating big wins as a playoff return looks increasingly likely.

Toronto managed a 5-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday, passing the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division:

Maple Leafs: 83 points in 72 games
Bruins: 82 points in 73 games

This leaves the currently in-action New York Islanders four points behind the Bruins for the final wild card in the East.

The Maple Leafs aren’t just grabbing key points; they’re doing so against some strong opponents who’ve had plenty on the line, too. They beat a Metro contender in Columbus tonight, the Bruins on Monday, grabbed an OT point against Chicago on Saturday and handled the desperate Lightning last Thursday.

This game was all about William Nylander‘s brilliant start:

And also Toronto surviving a long penalty kill after that Polak hit:

Nazem Kadri‘s 30th goal really put the game out of reach, helping Toronto nab a significant victory.

The Blue Jackets can wallow in this defeat and Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s injury, either, as they turn around to face the Washington Capitals in a big one tomorrow.