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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.

Pavelski’s late goal helps Sharks grab 2-0 series lead over Preds

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The San Jose Sharks became the only team in the second round to jump out to a 2-0 lead in their series. The Sharks did it by beating the Predators 3-2 in Game 2 on Sunday night.

San Jose opened the scoring in the second period when Logan Couture buried a rebound by Preds goalie Pekka Rinne. Brent Burns took the initial shot from the point and extended his playoff point streak to four games.

The Predators finally got on the board at the 12:56 mark of the third period when Mattias Ekholm tied the game at one.

Here’s the goal:

Nashville’s good fortune didn’t last very long. Sharks captain Joe Pavelski gave San Jose a 2-1 lead less than five minutes later.

Pavelski also picked up two assists in the game. The 31-year-old has at least one point in six of his seven postseason games in 2016.

Joe Thornton then added an empty-netter in the final minute of play before Ryan Johansen scored with four seconds remaining.

Despite the loss, Preds head coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t too disappointed by the way his team played.

The Predators outshot the Sharks (39-25), they outhit San Jose (46-26), but they just couldn’t outscore them.

Like the old saying goes: “you’re not in trouble until you lose a game on home ice.” The Preds still haven’t done that, which means they’re not done yet.

The series now shifts to Nashville for Game 3, which will be played on Tuesday night.

Video: Marc-Edouard Vlasic saved by his visor after taking Shea Weber shot to the face

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It’s a scary night for players getting hit in the head with pucks.

After Brian Elliott was hit in the head by a Jason Spezza slapshot, it was Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s turn to narrowly avoid disaster.

In the third period of Sunday’s game against the Predators, Vlasic took a puck to the face. The end result could have been catastrophic had Vlasic not had a visor.

You can see the incident by clicking the video at the top of the page.

Hockey Twitter breathed a collective sigh of relief after Vlasic got back up:

It sounds like Olli Maatta won’t be ready for Game 3

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You’ve all seen it by now (if you haven’t, click the video at the top of page). Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta was forced to leave Game 2 against the Capitals after taking a late hit from Brooks Orpik. Not only was the hit late, but Orpik also caught Maatta in the head.

After the Penguins’ optional skate on Sunday, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t optimistic about Maatta’s chances of playing in Game 3 on Monday night.

“Olli’s being evaluated as we speak, so I don’t have any real update as far as his status is concerned,” Sullivan said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s being evaluated today, we’ll probably have more information in the morning.

“I don’t have a lot of sense of his availability. I’m probably not optimistic, though.”

After the game, Capitals coach Barry Trotz stood up for his defenseman.

“We’ll let the league handle it,” Trotz said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “If you know anything about Brooks, he plays hard, he plays clean. He’s not a dirty player.”

And the league certainly did handle it, as they suspended Orpik for three games.

Related:

Penguins coach takes issue with late, high Orpik hit on Maatta

Brooks Orpik suspended three games for hit on Olli Maatta

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Brooks Orpik has been suspended for three games for his hit on Olli Maatta (top). The Caps defenseman will be forced to miss Games 3, 4 and 5 of the best-of-seven series against the Penguins.

Orpik delivered a late, high hit to Maatta in Game 2. The Penguins defenseman was wobbly getting off the ice and he was unable to return to the game.

Here’s how the Department of Players Safety saw the play:

“Orpik steps up to pressure Bonino, who quickly moves the puck to Maatta. Orpik peels off Bonino to pressure Maatta, who releases a shot from the top of the circle. The two continue on their path toward the goal line, as the puck is kicked into the slot. A full second after Maatta releases the puck, Orpik delivers a high, forceful hit making significant head contact. This is interference.”

To watch the NHL’s Department of Player Safety’s full explanation, click the video below.

This is the third time Orpik’s been suspended in his NHL career.