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Russians no longer mesmerize with brilliant hockey, but golden ‘feeling’ is there

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SOCHI, Russia – A feeling lingers in Russia. In the moments after Russia’s occasionally brilliant and often sloppy 5-2 victory over Slovenia Thursday, reporters peppered coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov with somewhat indignant questions that seemed just a little bit out of step with the moment. After all, this was only the Russians’ first game, a virtual warm-up against an over-matched team, and they did win pretty comfortably …

Bam: Why did the team decline so much in the second period?

Bam: If you could not stop the Slovenian line, all due respect, how can you stop the Americans?

Bam: What are you going to do about the struggling first line?

The Russians have not won a gold medal in hockey in more than 20 years. Officially, they have never even won a gold medal as Russia – their eight Olympic gold medals came under the banner of the Soviet Union and the Unified Team.

And still, a feeling lingers – a feeling that this sport is conclusively Russian, a feeling that the nation’s greatest traits come out in ballet, literature and the hockey rink, a feeling that no many how many years of heartbreak go by, Russia is supposed to win the hockey gold medal.

VIDEO: Watch U.S.-Russia (Saturday, 7:30 am ET) live online

There was, for all intents and purposes, no ice hockey in Russia before World War II ended. There were a few fledgling efforts to get hockey started, and these generally died before they were born. Instead, there was a popular ice sport called bandy, and it helped define a Russian style of hockey unlike anything that came before.

Bandy is a lot like soccer on ice – the outdoor rink is roughly the same size as a soccer pitch, there are 11 players on each team, the ball used is small and round and so on. Success in bandy depends on speed and precise passing and angles – there is not much player contact – so this was the perspective the Russians brought to ice hockey. The Canadians and Americans would rough you up. The Russians were too refined for that kind of game.

The father of Russian hockey was a fascinating man named Anatoli Tarasov who seems like he was sort of a Bear Bryant type of coach. In 1946, in the wake of more than 20 million Russian deaths during the war, there was an effort to start the first Russian hockey league. Legend goes that the first championship was basically formed based on a couple of old hockey rulebooks.

Tarasov was soon taking the lead in creating a Russian style of hockey. He wanted to make it different from the rough-and-tumble Canadian version of the game – he never did like those physical Canadians.

“A hockey player,” he once said, “must have the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper and the rhythm of a musician.” This was how he saw the game. As art. As expression. And to a startling degree, he was able to bring that vision to the ice. The Soviet team played in its first world championships in 1954 – just eight years after the sport essentially began. And the Soviets won it, going undefeated and crushing Canada 7-2 in the final game.

Tarasov had instilled his hockey vision just that quickly. He was forceful man, exuberant, irrepressible, exceedingly harsh one minute, positively jovial the next. His players loved him and despised him in equal measure (which made him different from the other giant of Russian hockey, Viktor Tikhonov, who was unanimously hated).

His love was for the strategies of the game, the angles, the methods of attack. He wanted his players to know each other so well that they would sense, instinctively, without looking, where everyone stood on the ice. He saw the beautiful geometry of the rink and was thrilled with a pass that seemed headed for nowhere only to have a teammate materialize and take the puck in full stride.

The Russian style of hockey awed the world, much in the same way that the Brazilian style of soccer or the American style of basketball did. The Soviet Union took its sports very seriously during the Cold War. Each gold medal, each world record, each triumph was seen as just that, a triumph of Soviet dominance. It was that way in space. It was that way in the arts. And it was particularly that way in hockey. The Soviets won 22 world championships and eight Olympic gold medals and, even more, won them with style and finesse and a flair that was exclusively Russian.

VIDEO: Introducing Russian hockey sensation Viktor Tikhonov

“When they got it going,” American Mike Eruzione would say, “it wasn’t even hockey. It was like ballet or something. You would be on the ice watching them just like the fans.”

It has been a long time since Russian hockey was like that. The breakup of the Soviet Union badly hurt the team. Between 2002 and 2010, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine each fielded a hockey team that qualified for the Olympics. All four countries were part of the Soviet Union before the break.

And with the addition of NHL players to the Olympics, Russia’s ability to field a brilliantly honed team that can make art – the way Tarasov’s teams did – is basically at zero. Olympic hockey now is more about individual skill and the ability to make quick adjustments than it is about building a finely tuned team that moves as one.

But a feeling lingers in Russia. Also, there’s a tremendous amount of talent on this year’s Russian team. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk probably go on most fans 10 best players in the world list. And with the advantage of home ice and some goaltending questions among the other favorites, there’s a feeling that this is the year for Russia to capture some old glory.

There really wasn’t a lot to learn from Thursday’s game. The Russians scored two goals in the first five minutes and peppered Slovenia goalie Robert Kristan with shot after shot in the first period. The Russians promptly lost their edge in the second period against a game Slovenian team. They regained their footing in the third.

It was the sort of game, frankly, where you probably saw what you expected to see, and what Russian journalists saw, predictably, was doom. You could almost hear the minds whirring away as they tried to figure out the conversion rate for a 5-2 win over Slovenia against Saturday’s game against the loaded U.S. team.

VIDEO: U.S. ready for its showdown with Russia

There’s so much pressure on this Russian hockey team. The Sochi Olympic cost $50 billion and countless hours of frustration to create … and for what? There are other gold medals, of course. Russia won the pair figure skating, for instance – Russia has an unprecedented record in pairs figure skating.

But, in Russia, realistically, there are no other gold medals.

“What would gold mean here?” Ovechkin was asked in what has already become the most talked about exchange of the Olympics. Ovechkin had clearly prepared his answer.

“It means gold only cost $50 billion,” he said and he smiled. It was a joke. Sort of.

Why the Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest surprise

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets in goal during the third period of a 4-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on October 28, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Coming off of a season where they finished with the fourth-worst record in the league, expectations were remarkably low for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering this season. Being on the outside of the playoff picture for the third year in a row seemed like a given. Being one of the worst teams in the league again, if not the worst team, seemed like a real possibility.

But entering play on Saturday they have been, by far, the NHL’s biggest surprise with a 13-5-4 record through their first 22 games, putting them in third place in the Metropolitan Division just one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, and only three points behind the New York Rangers with multiple games in hand on both teams. It is still the best start in the history of the franchise.

Let’s take a look at what is behind their newfound success.

Sergei Bobrovsky is back

One of the biggest factors in Columbus’ miserable start a year ago was the struggles of starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. A former Vezina Trophy winner, the 2015-16 season was by far Bobrovsky’s worst campaign since arriving in Columbus. So far this season, he is back on track and once again playing like one of the top goalies in the league.

In 20 starts this season he owns a .929 save percentage and has already recorded three shutouts.

At this point last season he was carrying around a .905 save percentage and talking about how he had little confidence in his game.

How much of a difference is that swing in his performance making? A massive one. He has faced an almost identical number of shots through his first 20 starts (562 in 2015-16, 566 this year), but the difference in his performance has shaved 13 goals off of the Blue Jackets’ goals against total. Add 13 goals to that total right now and they go from second in the NHL, all the way down to 15th. That alone has to be worth a couple of wins.

Goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey, and if you have a good one, or one that is simply on an incredible hot streak, it is going to mask a lot of flaws. Likewise, a goaltender that is struggling can make an otherwise good team think it has a lot of problems.

Some young talent is making a big impact

One of the biggest concerns with the construction of the Blue Jackets’ roster entering the season was the amount of money they had tied up in veteran players that were starting to get into their late 20s or early 30s and how little some of them had produced a year ago. Nick Foligno. Scott Hartnell. Brandon Dubinsky. Jack Johnson. Long-term some of those contracts are still a concern (though, Foligno is having a nice bounce back season with 20 points in 22 games), but what is really helping Columbus this season is the number of young players that have stepped into the lineup and are making huge contributions.

Six of the team’s top-10 scorers, including three of the top-five, are age 24 or younger.

Among that group is 19-year-old Zach Werenski who has been a huge addition to the team’s blue line. With 16 points he is the leading scorer in the NHL among rookie defensemen and is one of the best possession drivers on the team.

Up front, Alexander Wennberg, the team’s first-round pick in 2013 (No. 14 overall) is taking a huge step in his development and has seen his production skyrocket across the board while playing alongside Brandon Saad and Foligno.

Even though his minutes have been limited and coach John Tortorella still wants to see more consistency out of him, 22-year-old Josh Anderson already has seven goals on the year.

There is probably a little bit of luck on their side

When trying to figure out if a team is for real or not there are a couple of underlying signs you need to look for.

For example: A team that is getting badly outshot and is winning because of a sky high shooting percentage or save percentage (or both) is probably a team that is getting a lot of good luck and is setting itself up for a big collapse in the future (take, for example, the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs. Or the 2014 Colorado Avalanche. Or the  2015 Calgary Flames).

And while that is not entirely the case with the Blue Jackets right now, they have been a little on the lucky side so far.

Their shot on goal and shot attempts numbers are decent and have them around the middle of the pack in the league, but there is still probably a regression coming in the future when it comes to their offense which is currently tied for sixth in the league in goals scored.

At the moment they are scoring on nearly 11 percent of their shots, while five individual players are carrying shooting percentages higher than 15 percent. Those are all numbers that are likely to drop as the season goes on. It’s just too hard, both for teams and individuals, to maintain that type of shooting success over the course of an 82 game season. Over the past five years only 11 teams (total) have finished an 82-game season with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent, and none have been over 11. In 2015-16 only 32 individual players (minimum 100 shots) finished the season with a shooting percentage higher than 15 percent. Again, the Blue Jackets right now have five of them. Some of that is going to regress a bit.

But again, they also aren’t the 2013 Maple Leafs or the 2014 Avalanche here when it comes to luck. They are keeping teams to less than 30 shots on goal per game, and while their possession numbers are not great, they are not exactly overly concerning, either. They are probably not playing that far over their heads at the moment.

As long as Bobrovsky stays healthy and keeps playing like the goalie he’s been for most of the past five years (the 2015-16 season excluded) they are going to have a shot to hang around in this thing.

Canadiens lose in San Jose for 10th straight time

ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 29:  Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during the third period of a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on November 29, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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A bad first period was enough to send the Montreal Canadiens to a 2-1 loss to the Sharks on Friday night, extending the franchise’s losing streak in San Jose to 10 consecutive games going back to the 1999 season.

Brent Burns, scoring his team-leading 10th goal of the season, and Joe Pavelski provided all of the offense the Sharks would need in the win.

The star of the game has to be Sharks goalie Martin Jones for his 31-save effort, including a couple of highlight reel saves throughout the night. One of his best came in the first period when he absolutely robbed Alex Galchenyuk with a fancy glove save.

The Sharks really needed Jones to be on top of his game to get the win.

For as good as they looked in the first period, when they seemed to be on the verge of running the Canadiens out of the building, they were not able to maintain that level of play in the second and third periods and allowed Montreal to turn the tables on them a little bit.

Things really started to get a little tense for them with four minutes to play in the third period when Logan Couture was assessed a double-minor for high-sticking Alexander Radulov, resulting a nasty cut to Radulov’s face that left a trail of blood on the ice as he skated to the bench.

Montreal was able to cut the deficit to one when Artturi Lehkonen scored his third goal of the season but were never able to get the tying goal.

After a 13-2-1 start to the season the Canadiens have hit their first slump of the season and are now 3-5-1 in their past nine games.

The Sharks on the other hand are starting to hit their stride a little bit and have won six of their past seven games to open up a three-point lead over the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Division.

Flames, Johnson continue hot streak with win over Wild

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 30: Chad Johnson #31 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on November 30, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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The Calgary Flames’ recent turnaround continued on Friday night with a 3-2 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild.

The win improved the Flames to 7-3-1 in their past 11 games, and featured another strong performance from goaltender Chad Johnson as he continues to make his case to be the team’s No. 1 goaltender.

He stopped 23 of the 25 shots he faced through regulation and overtime, and then two of the three shots he faced in the shootout. Johnson has been on a roll for the Flames since the middle of November, starting nine of the team’s 11 games since Nov. 15.

During that stretch he has a .948 save percentage and a 7-2-0 record. His save percentage for the season remains over .930.

The crazy thing about that number is that it isn’t that far off from what his career numbers look like. Granted, most of that has come in a backup role, but in 40 starts with the Buffalo Sabres a year ago he finished the year with a .920 save percentage. He was at .925 a few years ago in Boston. Really, the only time in his career his performance dipped significantly below that was during a 19-game sample size in 2014-15 with the New York Islanders.

The win moved the Flames into a wild card position in the Western Conference for the time being. It is worth pointing out their 27 games played are more than any other team in the league at the moment, and are five more than the Nashville team they temporarily jumped over in the standings on Friday.

Still, considering where the Flames were just a couple of weeks ago when they were 5-10-1 through the first 16 games.

Sean Monahan scored the winning goal in the shootout for the Flames.

One thing that stood out in the shootout from a Minnesota perspective was the fact coach Bruce Boudreau did not use Zach Parise or Mikko Koivu.

Boudreau said after the game that he had intended to use Koivu if the shootout had been extended to a fourth round, and that his decision to use Charlie Coyle ahead of him came down to something he saw in the way Johnson was defending the first two shooters.

When it came to Parise, who only played 24 seconds in the overtime period, Boudreau said he wanted to talk to the team’s trainers to see if he was fully healthy, adding that he thought Parise looked sluggish and methodical for most of the game.

Video: Martin Jones robs Alex Galchenyuk with fancy glove save

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 15:  Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks stops a shot by Cam Atkinson #13 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period on October 15, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. San Jose defeated Columbus 3-2. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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Alex Galchenyuk has been one of the Montreal Canadiens best players this season and entered play on Friday night with nine goals in his first 23 games.

In the first period against the San Jose Sharks he had himself in a great position to score goal No. 10 when he had a wide open look right in front of the net.

Sharks goalie Martin Jones, however, had other ideas and absolutely robbed the Canadiens’ star forward.

Have a look.

Jones took over as the Sharks’ starting goaltender a year ago after he was acquired in an offseason trade with the Boston Bruins. He was a key piece in their run to the Stanley Cup Final.

He has been on quite a run for the Sharks over the past couple of weeks and entered play on Friday having allowed just six goals in his past five starts.