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: The David Ayres show; Canucks and Coyotes win big

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Three Stars

1. David Ayres, Carolina Hurricanes. Nobody expected this. He started the day as a 42-year-old Zamboni driver. He finished the day 1-0 in the NHL after stopping eight out of 10 shots for the Hurricanes in a 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Just for good measure, he also recorded a shot on goal. One of the most incredible stories in recent NHL history. Read all about it right here.

2. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes and Lightning have been at opposite ends of the NHL spectrum over the past month. Tampa Bay has been nearly unbeatable. The Coyotes entered the game with just five wins since the first week of January. So of course it was the Coyotes that cruised to a 7-3 win to help keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race. Keller was one of the big stars of the night with two goals and an assist in the win.

3. Tyler Toffoli, Vancouver Canucks. The other rout in the NHL on Saturday took place in Vancouver where the Canucks put a 9-spot on the board against the Boston Bruins. Toffoli was one of the many offensive stars for the Canucks, scoring two goals and an assist in the win. He was the Canucks’ big trade acquisition and is going to need to take on an even larger role than originally expected in the absence of Brock Boeser. He made that impact on Saturday.

Other notable performance from Saturday

  • Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood stayed out for the New Jersey Devils by helping them spoil Alex Ovechkin‘s big day in a 3-2 Devils win.
  • Jack Eichel scored a pair of goals to help the Buffalo Sabres stun the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 5-2 win that was not as close as the final score would indicate.
  • Scott Laughton scored two goals for the Philadelphia Flyers in a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • Carey Price recorded a shutout and Max Domi scored twice for the Montreal Canadiens as they topped the Ottawa Senators.
  • Jesper Fast was one of the difference-makers for the New York Rangers as they beat the San Jose Sharks, 3-2, on Saturday night.
  • Reilly Smith scored two goals against his former team to help the Vegas Golden Knights to a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers.
  • Rocco Grimaldi scored the shootout winner for the Nashville Predators to cap off an eight-round shootout win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
  • Joonas Donskoi‘s shootout winner lifted the Colorado Avalanche to a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Ovechkin scores the 700th goal of his career. Read all about it here (and here).

Artemi Panarin helped the New York Rangers keep rolling on Saturday, and this ridiculous play set up the Rangers’ first goal of the night.

The entire eight-round shootout for the Predators and Blue Jackets.

Moment of the Night

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour addresses his team and his temporary goalie.

Factoids

  • David Ayres became the oldest goalie in NHL history to ever win his debut. [NHL PR]
  • No denying that Ovechkin is not only one of hockey’s all-time greats, but one of the all-time greats in all of major North American sports. [NHL PR]
  • Carolina’s Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 12 games, currently the longest in the NHL. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 3, Washington Capitals 2
Philadelphia Flyers 4, Winnipeg Jets 2
Buffalo Sabres 5, Pittsburgh Penguins 2
Carolina Hurricanes 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3
Montreal Canadiens 3, Ottawa Senators 0
New York Rangers 3, San Jose Sharks 2
Arizona Coyotes 7, Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Nashville Predators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (SO)
Vancouver Canucks 9, Boston Bruins 3
Vegas Golden Knights 5, Florida Panthers 3
Colorado Avalanche 2, Los Angeles Kings 1 (SO)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Miracle on Ice team honored before Panthers-Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Amidst a sports-filled weekend that included the heavyweight championship boxing match and a NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, hockey fans were reminded about believing in miracles on Saturday night.

Prior to the game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers, member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team were honored, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the team’s epic run to the gold medal in Lake Placid, New York.

”I think as time has gone on I’ve had a greater appreciation for my good fortune that I had and to be able to make that team and how it all worked out and that I could be a part of that,” John Harrington said. ”I think that as the years have gone on that it’s humbling to think that I was a part of that. I’m humbled because it’s still being talked about 40 years later and I was lucky enough to be a part of it.”

The only missing players were Mark Johnson, who is head coach of Wisconsin’s women’s hockey team, Bob Suter, who died in 2014, and forward Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. Also missing was coach Herb Brooks, who was killed in a car accident in 2003.

The ceremony 40 years to the exact day veteran broadcaster Al Michaels asked the world, ”Do you believe in miracles?” culminated a two-day celebration that included President Donald Trump introducing the team during a rally and a meet-and-greet with fans on Friday night.

”Relive the Miracle,” originally planned for UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center on Saturday afternoon, was canceled due to poor ticket sales.

Saturday’s sellout crowd greeted Michaels and the former Olympians with enthusiasm and pride, providing them with a standing ovation and a thunderous ”U-S-A!” chant as they exited the ice after Florida’s Aleksander Barkov and Vegas’ Max Pacioretty took the ceremonial opening puck from Team USA captain Mike Eruzione.

NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton, who became the first US-born hockey player drafted first overall in the NHL Entry Draft when he was taken in 1983 by the Minnesota North Stars, said although the league was not akin to American-born players back then, watching the U.S. team strike gold gave him a bolt of confidence he could play at the next level.

”You could count the number of first-round picks that were American on one hand back then,” said Lawton, who is still the only U.S. high school hockey player to be drafted first overall, and one of only eight Americans to be taken first overall. ”It was Canada’s game and Canada only, and I felt that my first few years in the league. For me it was significantly important. I wasn’t a great player in the NHL, but obviously just by virtue of no one else having done it before -I was the first American ever pick first and all that stuff – in some small way hopefully helped other kids down the road.”

Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said while it was a tremendous sports story – one that was chronicled in several films, most notably the 2004 motion picture ”Miracle” – it was the opening puck drop for the evolution of ice hockey in the United States.

”It was the single most important event in the growth of hockey in the United States, McCrimmon said. ”When you compare the landscape of U.S. players today with what it would have been at that time, it’s incredible how the sport has grown. I just think it was on the front end of tremendous growth in the sport in the U.S.”

Hurricanes’ emergency goalie David Ayres beats Maple Leafs

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The Carolina Hurricanes had to turn to 42-year-old emergency backup goalie Dave Ayres on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He not only held his own against one of the NHL’s most powerful offensive teams, he beat them.

Ayres, a Zamboni driver for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and the emergency backup for both teams on Saturday night, was forced into action midway through the second period after Hurricanes goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer had to exit the game due to injury. He ended up stopping eight out of the 10 shots he faced — while also recording a shot on goal of his own — in a 6-3 Hurricanes win.

The fact that an emergency goalie had to enter the game is fascinating enough.

But that he played as well as he did, and managed to get credit for the win makes it one of the most stunning accomplishments in recent NHL memory.

When Scott Foster, an accountant by day, made his emergency appearance for the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago he only had to play 14 minutes against the Winnipeg Jets. He also did not get credit for the win.

Ayres played double that on Saturday, on the road, against what should have been a desperate Toronto team that fighting to make the playoffs and avoid one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. Instead, it was the Hurricanes that found an extra gear and completely dominated the game from the moment Ayres entered.

The Maple Leafs managed just 10 shots on goal against Ayres, and after scoring on two of their first three in the second period, were completely shutout by him in the third period.

For Ayres it adds another fascinating chapter to an already unbelievable story.

He has dressed as a backup for a number of American Hockey League games, and has also filled in at practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He is also a kidney transplant survivor.

The Hurricanes ended up in this situation after Mrazek — who was already filling in for Reimer, the Hurricanes’ starter on Saturday — was leveled in a collision by Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford.

Obviously the big concern for the Hurricanes now is the status of Mrazek and Reimer (there is a report out of Chicago that the Hurricanes already reached out regarding a potential goalie trade), but this is a massive win for the Hurricanes, both in the standings and emotionally. Imagine the boost that has to give them to be facing that situation and not only play the way they did, but also collect two huge points in the standings.

On the other side, well, this is bad.

While the hyperbole around the Maple Leafs can sometimes be way too much, whatever they hear regarding this game is going to be completely justified.

They, too, are in a fight for a playoff spot and not only laid an egg in a huge game, they were thoroughly embarrassed from the time Ayres entered the game until the final horn. They could not generate sustained pressure, they managed just 10 total shots in 28 minutes against a 42-year-old emergency goalie, and they just looked bad. Not only that, but it was also a Hurricanes team that was already playing without one of its top defenseman (Dougie Hamilton) and then lost another one (Brett Pesce) during the game.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL stars praise Alex Ovechkin as he hits 700 career goals

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There’s a new member of the 700-goal club and his name is Alex Ovechkin. At 4:50 of the third period against the Devils on Saturday, the Capitals captain fired one by Mackenzie Blackwood to reach the historic mark.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

The Washington Capitals captain is now the eighth member of the exclusive NHL club. He joins Mike Gartner (708), Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801), and Wayne Gretzky (894).

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Ovechkin has been doing this since he broke in the league in 2005 and his peers continue to marvel at his goal-scoring exploits.

NBC Sports recently sat down with T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Carlson to talk about Ovechkin’s career and his pursuit of Gretzky’s all-time record.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.