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


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.

Report: Ducks put Despres on long-term injured reserve

FILE - In this Sept. 22, 2015, file photo, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Simon Despres skates before an NHL preseason hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver. Despres has agreed to a five-year contract extension with the Ducks on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, solidifying his role in Anaheim after joining the club in a trade last season. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)
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Simon Despres has played only once this season, back on Oct. 13, due to injury.

It now appears the Anaheim Ducks don’t see the 25-year-old defenseman returning to their lineup any time soon.

On Sunday, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported on Twitter that the Ducks placed Despres, who carries an average annual value of $3.7 million, on long-term injured reserve, providing Anaheim with some flexibility in the salary cap situation.

By placing Despres on LTIR, it’s been suggested this could possibly allow the Ducks to sign restricted free agent defenseman Hampus Lindholm.

Lindholm, 22, missed training camp, instead deciding to stay in Sweden while he awaits a deal with the Ducks. Six games into Anaheim’s season, and still no deal.

It was reported last month that Lindholm was seeking a deal of eight years, and at least $6 million per season.

Last week, on TSN’s Insider Trading, McKenzie suggested the two sides could be about $250,000, annually, apart. He also added that there is a “cap hit penalty” when restricted free agents don’t get signed before the season begins.

“For every day that (Lindholm) is not signed in this season, the cap hit for the team will increase by about $30,000 if he were to agree to a $5.5 million deal,” McKenzie reported.

“Let’s say he agrees to a deal that’s $5.5 million AAV, well the cap hit’s going to be up around $5.8 (million) as of now, for each day that goes on.”

Comeback Canucks? Not against the Ducks

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 23:  Alexander Edler #23 and Philip Larsen #63 of the Vancouver Canucks look on after Corey Perry #10 of the Anaheim Ducks reacts to scoring a goal during the third  period of a game at Honda Center on October 23, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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The Vancouver Canucks have made a habit of third-period comebacks early this season. Playing with the lead, though? Not so much.

Despite their early penchant for late-game magic — certainly not a sustainable method of winning in the long-term — the Canucks were unable to score a come-from-behind win against the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday.

Instead, they lost 4-2, as Nick Ritchie and Corey Perry scored late in the third period to nullify any chance of a Vancouver comeback.

Henrik Sedin had gotten the Canucks back into a tied game early in the final period, before the Ducks killed off a Vancouver power play and then surged ahead for good.

It’s Vancouver’s first regulation loss of the season. In six games, the Canucks have played with the lead only once.

Really, the score flattered the Canucks, playing the second half of a back-to-back set in California. The Ducks dominated possession, but goalie Ryan Miller kept the Canucks in it until late in regulation.

The Canucks are now 4-1-1. That’s still a good start, but there have been signs lately that they could soon be served a reality check.


Meanwhile, the Ducks have won two in a row after losing their first four games to start the season.

It was promising that their best players were their best players in Anaheim’s home opener.

Ryan Getzlaf had three assists. Corey Perry had an assist on the winner and scored to put this one away. Defenseman Cam Fowler, who has been at the center of trade speculation in the past few months, scored Sunday and is now up to three goals, with points in four of six games.

“He’s played great,” Getzlaf recently told the Orange County Register. “Cam put a lot on his shoulders last year. He had a great year for us last year and it gets overlooked a little bit because he does it in a little bit quieter way. He’s not flashy.

“I thought his play has carried over from last year. He’s continued to play the same way and at a high level.”

This win puts the Ducks within a point of the San Jose Sharks. The two California rivals face each other Tuesday in San Jose.

Video: Dan Girardi’s first goal in nearly a year lifts Rangers to victory

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2012, file photo, New York Rangers' Dan Girardi looks on during an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia. The Rangers say they have agreed to terms with Girardi on a multiyear contract extension, taking the key defenseman off the trading block and keeping him away from unrestricted free agency. The deal was announced Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
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An offensive defenseman, Dan Girardi is not.

His last goal prior to this weekend? Nov. 12, 2015. It’s been a while. Almost an entire year now. But in his return to the New York Rangers lineup on Sunday, the 32-year-old Girardi was able to bust his scoring slump on a slap shot from the blue line that beat Arizona Coyotes goalie Louis Domingue.

The Rangers eventually won by a final score of 3-2, with Girardi’s goal counting as the winner. He scored only twice last season, and hasn’t scored more than five goals in a single season since 2009-10.

Despite poor start, Elliott ‘will find his game very soon,’ says former teammate Jake Allen

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Goalie Brian Elliott #1 of the Calgary Flames skates against the Edmonton Oilers on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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OK. So, Brian Elliott isn’t off to a good start in net for the Calgary Flames.

He has lost all three of his starts. He’s allowed 14 goals with a save percentage of only .839. Not good. Not good at all, especially considering the Flames acquired Elliott with the hopes of addressing their goaltending concerns from previous seasons.

Chad Johnson has instead started three of the last four games for Calgary.

Whether it’s Elliott or Johnson in net, the Flames have given up the most goals against in the league, while giving up 30.2 shots against per 60 minutes at five-on-five. That puts them 18th in the league at even strength.

But despite Elliott’s difficult start, a former Blues teammate of his has voiced support for the 31-year-old puck stopper, optimistically stating that a turnaround will happen.

“I wouldn’t worry one bit. That’s just my perspective,” Blues goalie Jake Allen told the Calgary Herald. “He’s one of the most competitive people I have ever met, and he will find his game very soon.

“Obviously, he wanted to get off to a good start (in Calgary), that’s first and foremost, but if it doesn’t go that way, he will rebound and find it. I’m 100 (per cent) about that. I wouldn’t be too concerned if I was a Flames fan.”

That’s reassuring. Maybe.

Elliott enjoyed five strong seasons in St. Louis, playing alongside Allen for three of those seasons. But St. Louis was — and still is — a very structured team under head coach Ken Hitchcock, which certainly bodes well for goalies.

It’s still very early in Elliott’s tenure in Calgary, which also has a new head coach in Glen Gulutzan.

The coach will have an interesting decision coming up next week, with the Flames making a quick two-game stop in the Central Division. They’ll face the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday and the Blues the following night.

Elliott didn’t get a chance to face his old team Saturday. Perhaps he’ll get that opportunity in St. Louis on Tuesday.