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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.

Team Europe’s next challenge: Beat the unbeatable

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Team Canada salute the fans following their 5-3 win over Team Russia during the World Cup of Hockey at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre on September 24, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
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Team Europe has already done more than anybody expected them to do at the World Cup by reaching the Final thanks to their stunning overtime win against Sweden in the semifinal on Sunday.

Just getting to this point, after beating the United States and Sweden — two of the world’s biggest hockey powers — along the way is a major accomplishment that would have seemed to be a nearly impossible task just two weeks ago.

Now they have one more seemingly impossible task in front of them: Beat Canada.

And not just beat Canada, but beat them twice.

In only three games.

For any team in this tournament that would have been a tall task in the championship round. Not only does Canada bring an insanely deep roster to the table that has multiple MVP candidates, Norris Trophy candidates, and Vezina Trophy candidates on it, but their recent play on the ice matches the absurdity of the roster on paper.

They don’t just win, they dominate teams.

Since the start of the 2014 Olympics this is what Team Canada has done to its opponents in the two major best-on-best tournaments it has played:

  1. They are 10-0
  2. They have outscored teams by a 36-9 margin
  3. They are coming off of a semifinal game against Russia where they nearly put up 50 shots on goal in a regulation game
  4. They have allowed more than one goal in just two of those games, and more than two goals just once

The games haven’t even been as close as the final scores would indicate because the final scores haven’t always reflected the level of dominance on display. A one or two goal deficit against these guys and their style of play usually feels like a 50 goal deficit.

On paper, this seems like it should already be over before it even begins.

But the beauty of a short series is that even when the two teams don’t match up on paper, random things can happen, mostly because of the X-factor that is goaltending.

Right now Europe’s Jaroslav Halak is putting quite a story together in this tournament. He has helped underdogs knock off superior teams in the past when he gets on a roll like the one he is on now.

It is going to take all of that and more to help Europe beat Canada two times over the next week.

They have already done what seemed to be the impossible to get to this point. Now they just have to do what seems to be the impossible again.

Twice.

Jaroslav Halak carried Team Europe to the World Cup Final

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 25:  Jaroslav Halak #41 of Team Europe celebrates a 3-2 overtime victory over Team Sweden at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at the Air Canada Centre on September 25, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Jaroslav Halak is doing it again.

He is taking an undermanned team, one that doesn’t match up with its opponents on paper, and carrying it to a level nobody expected it to reach.

He did it during the 2010 NHL playoffs as a member of the Montreal Canadiens when he helped a No. 8 seed upset that year’s Presidents’ Trophy winning team in the first round, and then the defending Stanley Cup champions in the second round. The Canadiens were mostly outplayed in each series, but Halak was so good, and so dominant, that it didn’t matter. He was the single biggest reason his team reached the Eastern Conference Final that year.

He showed how much of an impact a hot goalie can make on a team a short series.

He is kind of doing it again this year at the World Cup for Team Europe as it is now in the championship series getting ready to take on Team Canada.

The team in front of him isn’t getting outplayed to the same degree that the 2010 Canadiens were in those playoffs, but Halak has still been his team’s best player and the biggest factor in its current success. His .946 save percentage through four games is among the best in the tournament, while his 37 save effort in the semifinal on Sunday was probably his best one so far (and that includes his opening game shutout against the United States).

The European team has its share of forward talent up front. Anze Kopitar is one of the best two-way players in hockey and has been spectacular in this tournament. Marian Gaborik and Thomas Vanek are former 40-goal scorers in the NHL, while Frans Nielsen has always been one of the more underrated players in the league.

But the defense, even with a great player like Roman Josi, doesn’t really come close to matching some other teams in the tournament.

It has two players that don’t currently have NHL contracts (Dennis Seidenberg and Christian Ehrhoff). Zdeno Chara is 38 years old and has clearly slowed down from where he was a few years ago.

As a team, they have the oldest roster in the tournament, and based on their pre-tournament games it looked like they were going to be nothing more than a minor speed bump for the rest of their teams in their group.

Put all of that together and it put a ton of pressure on Halak to be on top of his game to give his team a chance to even stay competitive, let alone win.

He has done that and more so far in the tournament, and it is the single biggest reason the team that opened the tournament as the biggest long shot to win the whole thing (33/1) is in the final.

From a big picture standpoint Halak is not the best goalie in hockey. But sometimes in a short tournament all you need is a good goalie to get on a hot streak. And he is still capable of putting together those streaks that can carry a team, and he is doing it again in this tournament just as he did in the 2010 playoffs.

Stunner: Team Europe beats Sweden, advances to World Cup Final

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 25:  Marian Gaborik #12 of Team Europe is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a second period goal against Team Sweden at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at  Air Canada Centre on September 25, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images)
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When the World Cup began earlier this month, Team Europe, a collection of players from eight European countries that did not have their own team in the tournament, was thought to be the weakest team in the field.

Not necessarily a bad team, but one that seemed like it would have trouble keeping up with the hockey superpowers that made up the remainder of the field. That thinking seemed to be confirmed in the pre-tournament games when the North American young stars team skated them out of the building in what the European team admitted was a wakeup call.

All of that is why they still have to actually play the games, and in a short tournament like this anything can happen. 

In this case, anything did happen.

Thanks to their 3-2 overtime win over Team Sweden on Sunday afternoon in the World Cup semifinals, Team Europe has clinched a spot in the World Cup final series and will take on Canada in a best-of-three round that begins on Tuesday night.

It’s been an incredible and almost unbelievable run so far Europe. They frustrated the United States in their opener and shut them out, beat the Czech Republic in overtime, and then on Sunday shut down Sweden to advance to the final. 

The biggest part of their success has to be the play of their goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who has been their best player the entire tournament.

On Sunday, he stopped 37 out of 39 shots and improved his save percentage in the tournament to .946.

The other big star for Team Europe on Sunday was Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar who scored a pair of goals, including the overtime winner.

After Marian Gaborik scored late in the second period to tie the game at one, Tatar opened the third period with a goal just 12 seconds in when he followed up his own shot and beat Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist to give Europe its first lead of the game.

Sweden’s Erik Karlsson scored late in the third period to send the game to overtime.

Europe now haas to get ready to face a Canadian team that is 4-0 in the tournament and outscored its opponents by a 19-6 margin.

Canada beat Europe in the first round 4-1.

Sounds like Blues will be more aggressive

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 06:  Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues watches from the bench during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on January 6, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Blues defeated the Coyotes 6-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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With their former captain now a member of the Boston Bruins and their coach on year-to-year deals, it’s appropriate to say that the St. Louis Blues are in a period of transitions.

It’s also a convenient choice of words, as it sounds like the Blues are going to change the way they transition on the ice.

That’s the indication given by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and players like Chris Porter approve.

“The play in the neutral zone will fit this team great with the speed and the size that they already have in place,” Porter said. “I don’t think it’s a huge adjustment for the guys, I think it’s just a little tweak here or there.”

Perhaps hiring Mike Yeo had something to do with taking a more modern approach?

Either way, getting more aggressive makes a lot of sense for the Blues, at least on paper.

With David Backes and Troy Brouwer out of town, younger and speedier players get to take more of a role. Some Blues fans will probably view this tweak – big or small – as a long time coming.

Of course, there’s a give-and-take when it comes to situations like these, and becoming more attack-minded sure makes retaining Kevin Shattenkirk that much more important. The underrated blueliner still expects to be moved despite being named an alternate captain, yet you wonder if these changes might prompt GM Doug Armstrong to try to pull some strings to keep him around.

(Giving Alexander Steen a contract extension means that much less room for the likes of Shattenkirk.)

Even if the Blues eventually need to part ways with Shattenkirk, there are some other nice assets who can use this change as a catalyst to push this team up another level.

In an ideal scenario, the Blues would enjoy those improvements and keep Shattenkirk to reap those rewards.