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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.

Pavelec, Jets aren’t ruling out return next year

Winnipeg Jets v New York Islanders
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For the longest time, the talk in Winnipeg was how to move on from Ondrej Pavelec.

Amazing what a pair of wins can do.

Since being recalled from the AHL last week, Pavelec has backstopped the Jets to back-to-back victories — stopping 64 of 70 shots, for a .914 save percentage — and now, both he and the organization are being asked about a potential return next season.

From the Free Press:

In the fall, he accepted his demotion to the AHL with humility and class and has been a calming presence since returning to the Jets last week.

A scenario where Pavelec would serve as an experienced, lower cost No. 2 behind the anointed No. 1, Connor Hellebuyck, doesn’t seem completely far-fetched.

Pavelec told the Free Press he’s not thinking about next year, but did admit “I’m gonna be a free agent, I guess, for the first time.”

Head coach Paul Maurice was also vague about the future, but slightly more optimistic.

“Everything is possible,” Maurice explained. “There’s so much that’s transpired, there’s so much good for Ondrej to look forward to — that will be taken care of at that time.”

Maurice added that getting back into the NHL, and winning games, was the “start to the possibilities” for Pavelec’s future.

Look, there’s no denying Pavelec hasn’t been good and, accordingly, faced a ton of heat from fans and media over the last few seasons. But a significant chunk of that was fueled by his five-year, $19.5 million contract — a deal that was came under scrutiny the moment it was signed. As each year passed, the contract looked worse and worse, and things reached a fever pitch back in October, when Pavelec passed through waivers unclaimed and landed in the minors.

The contract expires in July and, without that financial albatross, the narrative around Pavelec changes. Especially if he puts together a decent run over the final three months of this season.

And this is why the aforementioned bring-him-back-on-the-cheap idea was floated. There’s little chance the Jets re-enter next season with the Hellebuyck-Hutchinson tandem, or putting Hellebuyck in tandem with another young, inexperienced guy.

The problem, though, would be location.

While it’s possible Pavelec will emerge as a inexpensive, useful veteran backup, there could be too much history for it to happen in Winnipeg.

No buyer’s remorse for Panthers after giving Yandle big money

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 07: Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers and Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning fight for the puck during a game  at BB&T Center on November 7, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers may be one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL, but there’s no buyer’s remorse after trading for Keith Yandle and giving the puck-moving defenseman a seven-year, $44.5 million contract.

“He’s fit in terrific,” Panthers GM and interim coach Tom Rowe said Sunday, per the Sun-Sentinel. “He’s such a positive influence on our young guys and in our locker room in general. We targeted him as our No. 1 free-agent signing [because we] thought he’d really complement our forwards. We had figured if he could get the puck up to them on the rush and create more offense, that’s what we’re looking for. He’s on target with what we thought he could do.”

Yandle, 30, has three goals and 20 assists in 48 games. His 23 points are the fifth most on his team — a team that’s been ravaged by injuries to key forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad.

Read more: Rowe says no timeline on Barkov, who could be out a while longer

Tonight in Arizona, Florida finishes up a four-game road trip against Yandle’s first NHL team, the Coyotes.

For the Panthers, it’s a prime opportunity to pick up two points — something they failed to do in the first three games of their trip. The only point they gained was in Edmonton, where they lost in overtime. They lost in regulation to Calgary and Vancouver.

Suffice to say, the Panthers really need to start stringing some wins together. Otherwise, the first year of Yandle’s big contract will pass by without getting to use him in the playoffs, and they’ll surely have some regrets about that.

Allen’s mental reset continues, as Blues will start Hutton in Pittsburgh

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen is slow to get up after giving up a goal to Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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St. Louis is giving Jake Allen more time to sort out his struggles.

Today, the club announced backup Carter Hutton will start tomorrow in Pittsburgh, while Pheonix Copley — the AHL call-up that allowed five goals in Saturdays’ loss in Winnipeg — will serve as the No. 2.

Allen, who didn’t even travel to Winnipeg so he could ‘reset’ mentally, will start on Thursday in Minnesota, which will be St. Louis’ last game prior to the All-Star break. Copley will again serve as the backup.

The decision to go back to Allen comes after a horrific stretch in which he was yanked from three straight games, and four of his past six.

It is noteworthy, though, that Allen isn’t getting the Pittsburgh game. Part of that could be the opponent — the Pens are a force offensively, and lead the NHL in goals per game — but it could also be that Allen needs additional time to sort out his issues.

Whatever the case, the plan may have changed. In explaining why he left Allen behind while the team went to Winnipeg, Blues GM Doug Armstrong suggested Allen could get right back in.

“I think taking a day way, getting a total reset — he could reset traveling with the team, but I wanted a complete reset — and then we come back on Sunday, he’s back in the net and he’s ready to go,” Armstrong said, per the Post-Dispatch. “To me, it’s not a huge story; he’s going to take a day to get a reset with his family — he just had a young baby — but the play needs to improve and I want to give him a fresh start.”

Allen’s struggles this year are well-documented (see here, here, here and here). Per the Post-Dispatch, his .897 save percentage ranks 43rd among 47 goalies who have appeared in 14 or more games this season.

Oshie’s contract status underscores urgency in Washington

Washington Capitals' Matt Niskanen (2) and T.J. Oshie (77) celebrate with Alex Ovechkin (8) after Ovechkin scored against the Dallas Stars during the third period an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Dallas. Stars' Jamie Benn (14) skates back to the bench. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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The way he keeps scoring, T.J. Oshie‘s next contract isn’t getting any smaller.

The 30-year-old winger was today named the NHL’s third star of the week, after racking up six points (3G, 3A) in three games for the red-hot Washington Capitals.

Oshie now has 31 points (17G, 14A) in 38 games. A pending unrestricted free agent, he’ll no doubt be looking for a raise beyond his current cap hit of $4.175 million.

One comparable contract is Andrew Ladd‘s seven-year, $38.5 million deal with the Islanders.

Loui Eriksson‘s six-year, $36 million deal with the Canucks is another.

And one more for good measure: David Backes‘ five-year, $30 million deal with the Bruins.

All three of those contracts have a cap hit of around, or exactly, $6 million. Ladd and Eriksson are a year older than Oshie, while Backes is two years older. They’re all reliable veteran wingers, just like Oshie.

Now, the Caps could always try and convince Oshie to take a home-town discount. They may even be able to keep him without a discount.

That being said, their No. 1 priority has to be getting Evgeny Kuznetsov, a pending restricted free agent, locked up. And they also need to keep in mind John Carlson, their No. 1 defenseman who can become unrestricted in the summer of 2018.

“We’re going to have some decisions to make as far as veteran players, and our young guys are going to be due for some pay raises,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said last season.

When he said it, MacLellan saw his team in a “two-year window.”

Alas, only one year of that window remains. Hence, the urgency to finally win the Stanley Cup this spring.

Like Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner are pending UFAs.

And like Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett ConnollyDmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Philipp Grubauer are pending RFAs.

The Caps host Carolina tonight.

Related: Kuznetsov sets table for Jakub Vrana’s first NHL goal