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.

Jon Cooper signs multi-year extension with Lightning

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Even if the Tampa Bay Lightning’s historic season ends with a shocking first-round exit, head coach Jon Cooper has plenty of job security.

The Lightning announced on Tuesday that they have agreed to a multi-year extension with Cooper, one day after the sixth anniversary of his promotion to the job. At six years on the job, he’s currently the NHL’s longest-tenured head coach with a 301-157-44 record and .643 points percentage. Since his hiring, the Lightning have the second-most points in the NHL and the most wins over that span.

“I am very pleased to announce Jon’s extension today,” said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois in a statement. “His ability to forge impactful relationships with everyone from players to staff has been a trademark of his tenure with the organization and he is the absolute best coach for our hockey team. Coop’s ability to develop a strong culture while continually adapting has been a big part of the team’s success. He has helped set high standards for our organization with his unrelenting drive for excellence. I would like to thank Coop and his family for their continuous commitment to the organization, as well as to the Tampa Bay community, and I look forward to working in partnership with Jon for years to come.”

In five full seasons behind the bench in Tampa Cooper has led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference Final three times and the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The two Conference Finals where they fell short — 2016 and 2018 — they lost in seven games to the eventual Cup champion.

This season, Cooper has led an All-Star cast of talent to the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy and the opportunity to top the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings’ regular season wins record (62) and match the NHL record for most points in a season (132), which was set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. Following Monday night’s victory over the Boston Bruins, the Lightning have 59 wins and 122 points with five games to play.

Given the Lightning’s success, Cooper should be one of the three finalists this season for the Jack Adams Award, which is voted on by the NHL Broadcasters Association. But before that can be decided, he has his eyes on guiding his team to a second Stanley Cup title in franchise history, which would be a fitting end to a memorable year.

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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.

Is Voracek right in saying the Flyers ‘choked?’

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All too often, when an NHL team fails, people learn the wrong lessons. That can be troubling for many reasons, most pressingly: that if they don’t realize why they failed, they could be doomed to make the same mistakes.

To some extent, it doesn’t seem like Jakub Voracek totally understands what happened with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2018-19, or maybe he’s simply too close to everything to truly process it all. Emotions run high, and as we’ve seen before with Voracek, he often doesn’t mask those emotions.

(Hey, at least Voracek isn’t running his team while taking the wrong lessons. Looking at you, Bob Nicholson, who blamed Tobias Rieder for the Oilers’ failures. Consider Edmonton Exhibits A-Z in always trying to treat symptoms instead of the disease.)

While reflecting upon the Flyers’ season, Voracek said he doesn’t want to take anything away from it, and told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi that they “choked.”

“We had a good push, but unfortunately, anytime we got close — three points, five points — and we played those big teams in front of us [in] those four-point games, we choked,” Voracek said. “We couldn’t find a way to win those big games, and that’s why we are where we are right now.”

The painful reality is that, frankly, the Flyers probably weren’t good enough to “choke.”

Instead, they’ve straddled that line between good and bad where their fates often boil down to the whims of luck.

Personally, it’s most instructive to go back to two phases of the Flyers’ season:

To start the season, the Flyers were a pretty strong possession team, finishing in the top 10 in various metrics (including controlling high-danger chances) by Natural Stat Trick’s measures. Amusingly, they were one of the absolute weakest teams by those same measures during their hot streak.

The differences, then, were some combination of Carter Hart and luck.

PDO combines a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, giving you a handy (if broad and imperfect) snapshot of a team’s luck. Early on, the Flyers suffered from lousy goaltending and were shooting at a middle-of-the-pack rate. During their hot streak, they were the second-luckiest team in the NHL, and while Hart’s goaltending factored in, their 9.98 percent even-strength shooting percentage ranked second in the NHL.

Long story short, the Flyers have been an unlucky team with shabby goaltending, and then surged when they were getting all the bounces and all the stops.

Breaking: that was always unsustainable.

The question, then, becomes: how can they fix things for next season. Voracek’s comments to Carchidi are a good starting point … because it’s not necessarily an easy fix.

“Tough to say. It’s not my decision,” Voracek said. “I’ve got to prepare myself in the summer and come in here in shape and be a better player, more experienced. Hopefully, we won’t have to focus on digging ourselves out of a hole by December.”

Indeed, it really is tough to say. But maybe there are a few things the Flyers can do.

Getting the coaching situation right is a great start. Should they stick with Scott Gordon, or might they try to go bold and aim for Joel Quenneville?

For all of the good things Hextall did as GM – particularly cleaning up the enormous salary cap messes that stemmed from his predecessors going big all the time – maybe he was too stagnant in certain areas. Hextall didn’t pull the trigger on two key decisions: waiting too long regarding Carter Hart, and waiting too long to move on from Hakstol.

Would the Flyers be in a different spot if the team zigged instead of zagging with those two decisions?

Ultimately, such questions are only hypothetical, so it’s crucial to get the next decisions right.

Basically … they better not choke.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Islanders’ Ladd out for season with torn ACL

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Andrew Ladd‘s time with the New York Islanders has been difficult, to say the least.

After signing a seven-year, $38.5 million contract with the team in free agency prior to the 2016-17 season, his first two years with the team were filled with inconsistency and declining production.

Things have only managed to get worse this season.

After being limited to just 26 games due to injury, the Islanders announced on Tuesday that Ladd now has a torn ACL and will be sidelined for at least the next five months.

He’s expected to be ready for training camp in September.

General manager Lou Lamoriello said Ladd will undergo surgery this week, and also specified that it is not the same leg that he previously injured. It is the other knee.

Ladd played 12 minutes in the Islanders’ 2-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday and will finish the year with three goals and eight assists in 26 games. That brings his three-year total to 38 goals and 31 assists in 177 games with the team. He still has four more seasons remaining on his contract after this season at a salary cap hit of $5.5 million per season.

The Islanders enter Tuesday tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division with the Pittsburgh Penguins, one point back of the Washington Capitals for the top spot.

The Islanders play the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday.

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 on NBCSN: It’s Braden Holtby’s time of year

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From the moment he arrived in the NHL, Braden Holtby has been one of the best goalies in the league and he has all of the hardware to prove it. For as good as he has consistently been in the regular season throughout his career (where he has won the Vezina Trophy once and finished in the top-five two other times, including once as a runner-up), his game has always elevated to another level come playoff time.

With the Capitals looking to secure another spot in the postseason on Tuesday night when they face the Carolina Hurricanes, we are starting to get closer to Holtby’s time of year.

How good has he been in the playoffs? Of the 74 goalies in NHL history that have appeared in at least 40 postseason games, only Tim Thomas has a higher save percentage than Holtby’s .929. But because the Capitals would always be on the short end of the stick come playoff time, often because they would just happen to run into a goalie at the other end of the ice that would play the series of their life for seven games, Holtby would never really get the respect he was always due for his postseason dominance because he never had the ring to back it up.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 PM. ET – NBCSN]

That all changed in 2017-18 when he helped backstop the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup with another sensational postseason performance. What was fascinating about that one was that because he had an uncharacteristically down regular season, and struggled at times down the stretch, he did not even start the postseason as the Capitals’ No. 1 goalie. It wasn’t until the team faced a 2-0 series deficit in round one against the Columbus Blue Jackets. that then-head coach Barry Trotz went back to him.

It proved to be a season-saving decision.

Fast forward to this season and when you look at the overall numbers for Holtby he is performing at nearly the same level that he did throughout the 2017-18 season. The numbers are almost identical.

2017-18: 54 starts, .914 even-strength save percentage, .907 all situations save percentage
2018-19: 54 starts, .920 even-strength save percentage, .909 all situations save percentage

The only difference this season is that Holtby is starting to trend up a little sooner than he did a year ago with, entering Tuesday’s game with a .914 save percentage of his past 20 starts over the past two months.

The trade deadline additions of Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin have helped improve the Capitals’ overall play and defensive performance, but they are still a middle of the pack to slightly below average team when it comes to their possession numbers and ability to cut down on chances and shots against. That can be a problem, especially if they lose Michal Kempny for an extended period of time (as it appears that they will).

Normally that is not a great sign for success in the postseason, but they were able to overcome it a year ago because they have superstar forwards that can outscore anyone on any given night, and because Holtby dominated when they needed him most.

If they are going to make another deep run in the playoffs and go for a repeat as Stanley Cup Champions they are going to need a similar type effort from Holtby.

History shows he is capable of doing it, and his performance over the past two months seem to indicate he is approaching that level that this season.

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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.