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.

Aho keeps rolling; Leddy splits two ‘Canes before scoring a beauty (video)

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After failing to score in the first 15 games of the season, Sebastian Aho has now found the back of the net in back-to-back-to-back-to-back games.

The Finnish forward opened the scoring less than two minutes into tonight’s game against the Isles. As if coming up with the first goal of the game wasn’t enough, Aho also picked up the primary assist  on Teuvo Teravainen‘s tally less than two minutes later, and Teravainen’s second of the game in the second period.

He now has nine points in his last three games and two periods, which is pretty remarkable for a guy that couldn’t buy one earlier on this season.

The start was less than ideal for New York, but they managed to salvage the period with an incredible goal.

You expect Islanders players like John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, or Mathew Barzal to score highlight-reel goals, but it was defenseman Nick Leddy that scored a beauty in the first period of Sunday’s game against Carolina.

With the Isles trailing 2-0 in the opening frame, Leddy grabbed a puck in the neutral zone, skated into Carolina territory, split Jaccob Slavin and Marcus Kruger and finally beat goalie Cam Ward.

It was Leddy’s fifth goal of the season, but probably the most impressive one of the bunch.

The Hurricanes currently lead 4-1 after two periods.

Video: Jeremy Roenick clearly isn’t afraid of snakes

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If you live in the desert, you have to expect the unexpected. It sure doesn’t seem like Jeremy Roenick has an issue with that.

On Sunday, the NHL on NBC hockey analyst posted a video that would be horrifying for some (like me), as he caught a snake in what appears to be his garage.

Not only did Roenick just use two golf clubs to catch it, he also didn’t hesitate to grab it before launching it over a wall.

Clearly, JR is the only one in the room that wasn’t completely terrified of the snake.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Roenick has gone head-to-head with some form of wildlife. He also attempted to go after an alligator on a golf course once (top). Clearly, the gator wanted to no part of him.

Is Brayden Schenn’s star turn for real?

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For years, hockey nerds and/or experts were waiting for Brayden Schenn to make “the leap.” Eventually, people gave up on that, to the point that the 26-year-old’s trade to the St. Louis Blues seemed more like a curious swap than a tide-turner.

Now, sure, Schenn found a solid niche with the Philadelphia Flyers, but it was in more of a specialist role. Many believed that he was dependent upon a plum gig on the team’s lethal power play and would possibly slip in St. Louis.

Considering that 17 of his 25 goals came on the power play last season, it wasn’t that outrageous to wonder if he might be just “a guy” in St. Louis.

As it turns out, he’s bordering on the guy with the Blues, and it’s been a truly wondrous thing to behold. Wondrous and baffling, to be honest.

On Saturday, it seemed like his hot streak would come to an end … until overtime. In what was very much a solo effort, Schenn beguiled the Vancouver Canucks to secure a 4-3 OT win for his Blues.

Nice. Now, it’s true that Schenn wasn’t the overall star of the night for St. Louis, as that probably goes to Paul Stastny, who piled up three assists. Still, Schenn’s third game-winning goal of the season extended his point streak to seven games, and it’s not like he’s just eking out production, either:

Wow. Overall, Schenn now has 8 goals and 26 points in 21 games during his debut season with the Blues. He’s on a pace to absolutely smash the best work of his career, which came in previous seasons where he collected 55 and 59 points.

So, naturally, the question is: with about a quarter of the season over, how much of this is real and how much of this is a lucky little mirage?

Under normal circumstances, one would lean toward luck, especially with a guy who’s already 26. That doesn’t sound old, and it’s certainly in a scorer’s prime range, but it also strikes as a bit unexpected.

To some extent, this is luck. Frankly, it’s not realistic to expect Schenn to average 1.25 points per game; consider that Sidney Crosby‘s career mark is 1.30, and you realize it’s wise to dial back expectations for a guy whose previous career-high was .74.

That aside, there are some reasons to believe that Schenn could very well remain a bigger scorer with the Blues than he did with the Flyers. Allow me to break it down.

Firing away

Whenever you’re trying to do some hockey myth-busting, shooting percentage is a great place to start. If one-third of the pucks a guy sends toward the net beats a goalie, then ‘ol gravity might not be very kind.

According to NHL.com, Schenn has now connected on 14 percent of his shots on goal this season (eight of 57). That might be a little high, but his career average is 12.5.

Now, assists are a big part of his totals, and that’s where things should cool down. Schenn’s most common linemates have been Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, by quite a margin according to Natural Stat Trick.

So, you can deduce that some of Schenn’s numbers are inflated by those two, especially with Schwartz connecting on 22.2 percent of his SOG so far in 2017-18.

Nurtured

And that’s where things could slide quite a bit. If the Blues get some talent back from that wave of summer injuries, perhaps Mike Yeo might move Schenn away from one or both of Tarasenko and Schwartz?

The overall setup definitely gooses Schenn’s numbers, but it’s not just linemates.

He’s getting way more ice time, in general. Schenn is averaging just under 20 minutes per night after logging almost 18 per evening last season, via Hockey Reference. While Schenn enjoyed fairly cushy zone starts before, it’s even more pronounced now; the 26-year-old’s began a career-high 63 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone entering tonight’s game.

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So, long story short, you can expect some of this success to subside. The Blues, as a team, are on a roll that is likely cool down.

The more interesting queries revolve around how much the Blues and Schenn might slip from these hot streaks. It should be some, but will the slide be as extreme as some expect? It should be fun to find out.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Chance the Rapper plays clueless hockey reporter on ‘SNL’ (Video)

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Chance the Rapper hosted “Saturday Night Live” last night and in skit he played Lazlo Holmes, a New York Knicks reporter for Madison Square Garden network filling in for the usual New York Rangers reporter who’s on paternity leave.

Holmes quickly discovers that the temperature for hockey is a tad different than that of a hoops game, and that some of the names in the sport are pretty tough to say for an outsider, like Brady Skjei, for example.

It’s not quite Tim “Little Hockey” Meadows bemoaning the 1994 NHL lockout, but it was good for some chuckles.

Hopefully next time NBC has a coach mic’d up for a pre-game speech, he lets fly with “let’s do that hockey!”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.