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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.

Poll: Are the Pens poised to repeat?

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

By now you know the statistic, but here’s a refresher anyway.

The NHL hasn’t had a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner since Detroit turned the trick in ’97-98, and hasn’t seen a reigning champ return to the Final since Detroit turned the trick in ’08-09.

Doing it once is tough. Doing it twice has become nearly impossible.

In fact, winning the Stanley Cup in recent years has, more often that not, paved the way for an extremely difficult encore. Chicago won it all in 2015, and was bounced in the opening round last year. L.A. hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug in ’14, and missed the postseason entirely in ’15.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

On paper, this year’s Pens are a virtual carbon copy of the club that won the Cup in June. Their most noteworthy departures were defenseman Ben Lovejoy (off to join former Pens GM Ray Shero in New Jersey) and third-string netminder Jeff Zatkoff, who signed in L.A.

And that’s it.

Everyone else is back.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are back. The HBK line is back. Both goalies, Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, are back. Even the depth guys that some weren’t sure the Pens could afford — Justin Schultz and Matt Cullen — are back.

Head coach Mike Sullivan and his staff are back, and reigning GM of the Year Jim Rutherford is back.

At first glance, this would make Pittsburgh a likely candidate to “do the Detroit” (as outlined above, in either scenario). But the NHL is fickle, and a grind — and it’ll be curious to see what that does to a Pens team coming off an extremely long season, with six players set to participate in the World Cup of Hockey.

Anyway, go have a vote:

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s been a summer of celebration for the Pittsburgh Penguins. They enter the upcoming season as the defending Stanley Cup champs.

The Stanley Cup made its way to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in a heart-warming visit from Phil Kessel. Bryan Rust was photographed cuddling with hockey’s silver chalice, because, why not? Jim Rutherford was named the GM of the year when the end-of-season awards were handed out.

All of it a reward for a Penguins team that was struggling in the Eastern Conference before a mid-season coaching change. And shortly after Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench, the Penguins took over the conference, rolling to a championship.

This summer, the Penguins made their pitch to land coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, with Sidney Crosby reportedly reaching out to the 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner. Pittsburgh, like many other teams, was ultimately unsuccessful in its quest, as Vesey signed with the Rangers.

The Penguins did sign another college free agent, forward Thomas DiPauli, on a two-year entry-level contract.

They also re-signed forward Matt Cullen to a one-year, $1 million deal. Defenseman Tim Erixon re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract worth $575,000 in the NHL. Justin Schultz, who initially didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins, making him an unrestricted free agent, eventually re-signed in Pittsburgh and that could give Derrick Pouliot, another young blue liner, some stiff competition when the season opens up.

A Stanley Cup victory did not come easy. The Penguins came out of the playoffs with injuries to several players, including Kessel, who underwent hand surgery.

But Rutherford is confident all the injured players — The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review listed Trevor Daley (ankle), Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow) as those on the road to recovery this offseason — should be ready for the opening of training camp.

The Penguins could also have a competition in the crease.

Matt Murray, who turned 22 years old in May, backstopped the Penguins to their championship. But Marc-Andre Fleury, 31, would like the opportunity to regain his old No. 1 spot.

Capitals have big plans for Dmitry Orlov, but there is just one problem . . .

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 25: Dmitry Orlov #9 of the Washington Capitals celebrates after scoring a goal in the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center on November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Dmitry Orlov is still without a contract for the upcoming season.

A restricted free agent, the 25-year-old defenseman had eight goals and 29 points last season, while making $2.25 million in salary for the season, as per General Fanager. His previous two-year contract had an annual cap hit of $2 million. But with training camps approaching, he remains unsigned for right now.

As noted before, there is a cap crunch for the Capitals heading into the new season. Orlov is the only RFA left for the Capitals to re-sign.

From the Washington Post:

According to generalfanager.com, Washington has $3.4 million in salary cap space left, but to allow for in-season roster flexibility or a 14th forward, the Capitals have around $2.6 million to devote to re-signing Orlov.

Still, despite that fact, the Capitals coaching staff has big plans for Orlov for the upcoming season.

“I envision him playing with a [Matt] Niskanen or a [John] Carlson, probably more prime minutes as we try even out our defense a little bit in terms of [workload],” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, as per CSN Mid-Atlantic.

“It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s at the right age where he can really contribute. We’ll look for his contributions on the power play, the penalty kill, playing in that top-4 on a pretty regular basis. I just think it’s right for him.”

Maurice: ‘Zero repercussions’ for Jets prospect Laine following offseason knee surgery

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 21: Patrik Laine #29 of Finland looks on against Russia at Ice Palace on May 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. Finland defeated Russia 3-1.(Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images)
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With NHL training camps approaching and the beginning of the World Cup of Hockey next month, Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice had some good news to report.

It appears that forward Patrik Laine, the second overall selection in this year’s draft behind Auston Matthews, is progressing well from the minor knee surgery he underwent following the NHL scouting combine. That same operation kept him off the ice when the Jets held their development camp early in July.

“He was held out of (Jets) development camp for precautionary reasons, but he’s back to full training and has been for quite some time,” Maurice told NHL.com.

“There will be zero repercussions moving forward.”

Laine, the reigning World Hockey Championship MVP from earlier this spring, was named to Finland’s World Cup team. The tournament begins Sept. 17. Finland begins the competition the next day against Team North America.

After an unbelievable 2015-16 season — he was named the Finnish league’s playoff MVP and won gold for Finland at the 2016 world juniors with seven goals and 13 points in seven games — Laine now looks to make the leap to the NHL.

With his shot and skill — not to mention an entry-level deal with that carries an AAV of $3.575 million, including $2.65 million annually in performance bonuses, as per General Fanager — he’ll be given plenty of opportunities.

“Patrik is going to be able to do all those things he’s always been able to do,” Maurice continued.

“How long it takes him to do it, I don’t know, but he’s going to get a chance to play. He fits in to what we’re trying to do as a hockey team, so you’ll live with some mistakes that are youth-generated, but he’s a very special talent and I would not be surprised if he comes in and is able to finish and put up numbers.”