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.

The Buzzer: Bolts send Devils packing, Caps jump ahead, Leafs extend series

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Three games on Saturday

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning win series 4-1)

The Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, but their 2017-18 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday. They’ll be disappointed, but this season was a success for the group. As for the Bolts, they’ve punched their ticket to the second round after a terrific regular season. The Lightning received point-per-game production from Nikita Kucherov (1o points), Steven Stamkos (6 points) and Alex Killorn (5 points), but they also had 14 different players pick up a point during the series.

 Washington Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (Capitals lead series 3-2)

Four of the five games in the series have gone to overtime. Game 5 was a typical back-and-forth affair, as the Jackets scored first before the Capitals went up 2-1. Columbus tied the game, Washington went ahead, again, 3-2, but a dominant third period led to the Blue Jackets forcing overtime. Nicklas Backstrom tipped-home the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Capitals the first home win of the series. This has clearly been the best first-round series of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (Bruins lead series 3-2)

The Maple Leafs jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads, but the Bruins managed to make things interesting in the third period. Boston had a number of power play opportunities, but they couldn’t cash in. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ll have to go back on the road to try to put the Leafs to bed. The Leafs managed to keep Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet on Saturday. Replicating that two more times won’t be easy.

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom scored two goals, including the overtime winner against the Blue Jackets in Game 5. He also added an assist on T.J. Oshie‘s go-ahead goal late in the second frame. The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The 30-year-old has two goals and eight points in five games this postseason.

2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals had a one-goal lead heading into the third frame, but they were badly outplayed in the third period. Holtby is the biggest reason why Washington was able to make it to overtime at all. The Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 16-1 in the third frame. Holtby had a rough season, but his play in Game 5 was very encouraging.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs had to kill a number of penalties during their Game 5 win over the Bruins, and Andersen was one of the key reasons they were able to do so. The Leafs netminder faced at least 40 shots for the third time in five games (he’s 2-1 in those contests). If Toronto wants to force a seventh game, they’ll need him to turn in another fantastic performance on Monday night.

Factoid of the Night

Sunday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 7:00 p.m. ET

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck