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.

Stanley Cup experience ‘doesn’t guarantee anything’ for Penguins

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The dynasty that once appeared so certain is again in the offing for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Four victories against the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final would make Pittsburgh the first franchise to win back-to-back championships in nearly 20 years and the first in the parity-driven salary cap era. It would give stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin their third Cup, one more than their boss – owner Mario Lemieux – earned during his Hall of Fame career and check off whatever boxes remain unchecked for a duo that is becoming one of the most accomplished in NHL history.

Yet for all the resiliency the Penguins have shown during their injury-marred title defense, they are taking nothing for granted heading into Game 1 on Monday night.

Not their home-ice advantage. Not their massive edge in Stanley Cup Final experience (156 games vs. just five for the Predators, all by captain Mike Fisher while playing for Ottawa a decade ago). Not their ability under coach Mike Sullivan to thrive under the pressure that once seemed to crush them.

“I think the fact that a lot of guys went through it last year and they can draw from that experience is good,” Crosby said. “But it doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Certainly not against the swaggering and well-rested Predators.

One of the last teams to qualify for the playoffs is now the last one standing between the Penguins and another parade in downtown Pittsburgh. Just don’t call Nashville the underdog. The Predators have hardly played like one while beating Chicago in a lopsided four-game sweep then outrunning St. Louis and outlasting Anaheim to reach the Cup final for the first time.

“I know we were the eighth seed but we didn’t feel like a group that we were,” Fisher said.

Now the guys from the place that calls itself “Smashville” have a chance to become the first franchise to win the Cup in its first try since Carolina did 11 years ago. That team, like this one, is based in a place hardly considered hockey hotbed a generation ago. This team, like that one, was led by coach Peter Laviolette. This team, like that one, has nothing to lose.

“This year we were kind of mediocre in the standings and maybe that’s what we needed just to come into the playoffs not really caring about home ice or who we were playing but just knowing comfortably and confidently as a team we could be in this position,” said Predators defenseman P.K. Subban.

Read more: Early struggles, injuries made Predators ‘stronger as a team’

A position the Penguins have become increasingly comfortable in under Sullivan.

The core that Crosby and Malkin led to the Cup in 2009 went through seven frustrating and fruitless springs before returning to the top in 2016. Now they’re here again, aware of the stakes but hardly caught up in the hype.

“I think that it’s a tough road no matter how you get here,” Crosby said.

“We found ways all season long and in the playoffs we’ve found ways. We’ve had that same mentality and that’s helped us. I think that’s kind of been our biggest strength.”

Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco leads Windsor Spitfires to Memorial Cup title

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Just over two months after signing his entry level deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, 20-year-old forward Jeremy Bracco left his mark on the Memorial Cup championship game.

Selected by the Maple Leafs in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, Bracco had a dominant finale on Sunday, with a goal and two assists as the Windsor Spitfires defeated the Erie Otters by a final score of 4-3.

To cap it off, Bracco assisted on the winning goal from Aaron Luchuk early in the third period.

That ends a great season for Bracco, who is listed at five-foot-nine-inches tall, but has produced impressive offensive numbers since coming to the Ontario Hockey League. He had 83 points in 57 games split between the Spitfires and Kitchener Rangers, the team he began this season with.

The Memorial Cup is always a great showcase for NHL prospects. Logan Brown, the towering center and 2016 first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, also had a pair of assists.

A pair of draft eligible players also had a big day for Windsor.

Gabriel Vilardi, the No. 4-ranked North American skater heading into next month’s draft and a potential top-five pick, had a pair of assists. Michael DiPietro, the No. 4-ranked North American goalie in Central Scouting’s final rankings, made 32 saves. He also had some luck, courtesy his goal posts, which denied Blackhawks high-scoring prospect Alex DeBrincat, among others from Erie’s talented team.

The Spitfires were defeated in the opening round of the OHL playoffs, but made it to the Memorial Cup tournament as the host team.

Laviolette: Early struggles, injuries made Predators ‘stronger as a team’

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After a second-round playoff appearance and trading for P.K. Subban several weeks later last offseason, expectations for the Nashville Predators were perhaps the highest they’ve ever been entering a new season.

And then they went out and started with an underwhelming 2-5-1 record through October.

When you think of those players that have been so critical to Nashville’s success in this run to the Stanley Cup Final versus the Penguins, most of them struggled mightily in that first month.

From PHT on Oct. 31:

Ryan Johansen isn’t helping much either. The 24-year-old center had three assists in the Preds’ first game, but just one in the next seven. He has no goals and has yet to register a point at even strength. In fact, he hasn’t even been on the ice for a Nashville goal at five-on-five!

Filip Forsberg doesn’t have a goal either, and James Neal has but one.

Meanwhile, the top pairing of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi are minus-7 and minus-6, respectively, with the possession stats to match.

And then there’s Pekka Rinne, who’s 1-4-1 with a .906 save percentage. Not helping.

Sounds bad.

But, looking back on that first month, head coach Peter Laviolette preached patience as the Predators worked to get out of that early hole.

“There was a lot of talk coming out of October about what was wrong and that we weren’t right,” said Laviolette on Sunday. “I kept saying internally, ‘That’s OK, it’s OK to struggle a little bit, to have to work to figure out who we are as a team, who we are as a group, who is driving the bus, where the seats are, and to have to figure a way out of something.’”

In November, the Predators turned around and went 9-3-2 that month.

“We were building something at that point,” said Laviolette.

“Even though December and some of January we were struggling a little bit, we were dealing with a lot of injuries. Not that that is an excuse, because every team has to deal with them. We were trying to move through that.”

For all their early problems, the Predators finished the season among the better puck possession teams in the league and qualified for a wild card spot in the West.

All of those aforementioned players that struggled in October eventually saw their fortunes turn around. Johansen had 61 points as their No. 1 center, Forsberg had another 30-plus goal season and Viktor Arvidsson (he wasn’t mentioned) emerged on that top line with his own 31-goal, 61-point season.

A pending restricted free agent, Arvidsson is surely in line for a substantial raise from the $650,000 average annual value attached to his current deal.

Oh, and the Predators’ defense, with Subban and Josi, has become arguably the best blue line group in the league. Rinne? He has a .941 save percentage in these playoffs, as Nashville rolled over the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks to get into the championship series.

From sitting 29th in the standings at the end of October, the Predators are now four wins away from a Stanley Cup. The challenge only gets more difficult, especially against a talented and deep Penguins team.

The Predators won’t have Ryan Johansen. But it looks like Mike Fisher could return for Game 1 on Monday. In the absence of both players last round against Anaheim, the Predators were lifted in part by the performance of Colton Sissons, who had a hat trick in the series clincher.

“I think when we got to the last third of the season, our guys had been through a lot,” said Laviolette. “Things had moved around a little bit. We became stronger as a team internally.

“More than anything, I think we were built in order to get to this point.”

Predators’ Fisher, Penguins’ Hornqvist could return for Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

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The Nashville Predators won’t have Ryan Johansen for the Stanley Cup Final, but it appears they will likely get another center back into their lineup for the beginning of this series.

Mike Fisher hasn’t played since Game 4 of the Western Conference Final because of an undisclosed injury.

But he did take part in Sunday’s practice ahead of Game 1 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, and provided an optimistic outlook for his status heading into Monday, telling reporters he was “ready to rock.”

The Predators could also get Craig Smith back, as well. He hasn’t played since May 7 because of a lower-body injury, but also practiced Sunday. All players currently on the trip will be available, said Predators coach Peter Laviolette.

Even with Fisher nearing a return, the Predators are still in tough at center without Johansen, especially given Pittsburgh’s talent up the middle, beginning of course with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “We had a couple good centermen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) last round that we had to face.”

For the Penguins, who have dealt with a long list of injuries, particularly on defense, in this postseason, there was promising news about the status of forward Patric Hornqvist, who has missed the last six games.

Hornqvist, who on seven occasions has scored 20 or more goals in a single season, took the warm-up skate prior to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final versus Ottawa, but didn’t play.

“We obviously chose to hold him out for reasons that we’ll keep amongst ourselves,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.

“But his status is he’s obviously been cleared for practice today. He practiced today. He’ll be a game-time decision. But based on the way that he practiced today, we’re certainly encouraged.”