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.

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Golden Knights’ Stastny could miss up to two months

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It turns out the injury to Vegas Golden Knights forward Paul Stastny is a lot worse than previously expected.

Originally only thought to be out for a couple of games due to a lower-body injury, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant announced on Monday that his second-line center could be out of the lineup for up to two months.

“Going to be longer than we thought, probably up to two months. Possibly,” he said.

That, obviously, will be a big blow to a Golden Knights offense that has struggled in the early part of the season.

Stastny joined Vegas over the summer on a three-year contract in free agency and was expected to center the second line alongside the team’s other big offseason acquisition, winger Max Pacioretty.

Now those plans are on hold for the next couple of months.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season the Golden Knights are off to a slow start this season having won just two of their first six games as of Monday. One of the biggest problems has been a lack of offense as the team has managed just 11 goals in six games. They have yet to score more than two goals in any one game this season.

While it is a cause for some concern, the Golden Knights are still controlling the shot attempt numbers in pretty much all of their games and being crushed by a dismal 5.2 team-wide shooting percentage. So there is some hope that things will turn around.

The process is there, even if the early results are not.

Still, they need to get more production from a line that isn’t their top one.

When the trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith is not on the ice this season they have been outscored by a 2-12 margin at even-strength. Whether Stastny is in or out of the lineup, that sort of production from the other three lines is not going to be good enough.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of early NHL noise

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Trying to analyze the early season results in the NHL can be a bit of a mess.

Those games and points matter — more than most people realize — but they are not always an accurate representation of what teams are. There can be a lot of noise there when a talented team gets off to a slow start because a couple of bounces went against them or their goalie had a bad week, or when a potential non-playoff team starts off on a roll. In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we try to sort through the noise and separate reality from fiction.

This week we’re separating the NHL’s 31 teams into four different tiers:

  • The teams off to the strong start that are for real
  • The teams off to a strong start but the jury is still out them
  • The teams off to a slow start but are going to get beter
  • The mystery teams that could end up going in either direction
  • The teams that are off to slow starts and are not likely to get much better

With that said, on to the rankings…

First Tier: Good start and they are for real

1. Boston Bruins — The Bruins got blown out in the season opener in Washington, but all they have done since is steamroll everyone else they have played. On one hand, yes, they have played four run-of-the-mill teams that are not going anywhere this season. On the other hand, that is exactly what you expect a great team to do to run-of-the-mill teams.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — The offense is scary good, and it will only get better whenever they find a way to get William Nylander signed. Auston Matthews won’t keep scoring two goals every game but he is still an elite player. Defense and goaltending is going to be a question mark come playoff time but the offense is good enough to make them a force in the regular season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Is this it? Is this finally the year? It could be. It might be. I think it is. Not only are the Hurricanes finally looking like the team we have been waiting for them to be, they are also an extremely fun team.

4. Nashville Predators — They laid an egg in their home opener against Calgary and became the butt of many jokes around the league for hanging a banner for pretty much everything they do, but this is still one of the most complete teams in the NHL. And they are playing like it so far.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have only played three games as of Monday, but did you see what they did to a pretty good Columbus team over the weekend? When they are clicking on all cylinders they are as good as it gets.

Second Tier: Good start, but jury is still out

6. New Jersey Devils — The Devils were one of the playoff teams from a year ago that I had my doubts about coming into this season, and while those doubts still remain it’s awfully hard to argue with the early season results. Three wins in their first three games including a dominating 6-0 win over the defending champs and an impressive win over a Stanley Cup contender in San Jose.

7. Anaheim Ducks — Winning four out of six and collecting nine of a possible 12 points while playing mostly without Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase and Ryan Getzlaf is impressive. They haven’t exactly looked good while doing it, and John Gibson is the one doing most of the heavy lifting to carry the team, but that’s why goalies get paid, too.

[Related: John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat]

8. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are picking up where they left off a year ago and doing their thing. That thing? Carrying the offense.

9. Dallas Stars — The Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov trio is making things happen, both individually and as a group. All three have at least eight points through their first four games, while the Stars are outscoring teams by a 6-2 margin and controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts when they are on the ice together.

10. Chicago Blackhawks — What does it tell me when a team is 3-0-2 through its first five games with all five games going to overtime while also being near the bottom of the league in goals against? It tells me a lot of things have fallen in their favor early on and that the whole thing might be a giant house of cards waiting to collapse. But those points matter too, and you can’t take them away.

Third Tier: Slow start, but it will not continue

11. Washington Capitals — After demolishing the Bruins on banner raising night they have lost three out of four entering playing on Monday, and at times have not looked great while doing it. But let’s not panic too much. They will get it together.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have had some problems defensively and with their puck management, but that has been the case with this group over the past two years. They are playmakers that play a high-risk, high-reward game. Only a handful of teams in the league can make that work. They are one of them.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They clearly have not hit their stride yet, alternating wins and losses through the first two weeks but the talent on this team is real. Be patient.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin is the backbone of this offense and he is off to an incredible start. He, along with Sergei Bobrovsky, are going to give them a chance to compete this season. The problem is they are at risk of losing them both for nothing after this season. Still a delicate situation for the Blue Jackets’ management to handle.

15. Vegas Golden Knights — Before you start thinking about regression and that last year was a fluke, keep in mind that Marc-Andre Fleury can — and will — be a lot better than he was over the first few games of the season and that they are currently a dominant possession team. They will be better.

[Related: What’s behind Golden Knights’ slow start?]

16. San Jose Sharks — Other than that blowout win in Philadelphia this has not been what we expected from the Sharks at the start of the season. They are clearly still trying to figure things out, but they will.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are pretty much the exact opposite of the Chicago Blackhawks so far in that they have played a lot of close, one-goal games that have gone to overtime, only instead of everything going in their favor, the bounces have worked against them.

Fourth Tier: The mystery teams 

18. Montreal Canadiens — I had no expectations for this team at the start, but they haven’t looked bad. Carey Price can be a difference-maker, but I don’t trust the offense to be good enough to sustain this better-than-expected start.

[Related: How can Canadiens exceed expectations this season?]

19. Calgary Flames — If they are going to do anything this season they are going to need more from Mike Smith because other than the shutout in Nashville he has not been good this season. Johnny Gaudreau is fantastic.

20. Vancouver Canucks — Good news: They have won three of their first five. Bad news: Their best young player is sidelined with a concussion. Worse news: They had a promising start last season, too, (6-3-1 through 10 games), and still finished with one of the league’s worst records. I would anticipate that is where they end up this season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — The big question with Conor Sheary was whether or not he could be a productive player away from Sidney Crosby. The early results in Buffalo are promising with his three goals in four games. If he has a bounce back year that would be a great pickup for the Sabres given how little he cost. Don’t forget about Jeff Skinner, either. There is some talent here, but it feels like we’ve said that about Buffalo before during this perpetual rebuilding phase.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — They can look like a playoff team or a lottery team on any given night. They are the biggest mystery team in the NHL, mainly because their defense and goalie situation is a constant question mark. Early injuries to James van Riemsdyk and Nolan Patrick are not helping.

23. St. Louis Blues — They spent a ton of money and assets to upgrade the offense over the summer, and they are returning a pretty solid defense. But goaltending is really hurting them early on.

24. Los Angeles Kings — They still look like an anemic offense team that is in need of an overhaul. At times they just never seem to be a threat to score, even with players like Anze Kopitar and Ilya Kovalchuk on the roster.

25. New York Islanders — The bottom of the roster is ugly, the defense and goaltending are question marks, but Mathew Barzal has superstar potential and Anders Lee is still scoring without John Tavares next to him.

[Related: Mathew Barzal is Islanders’ reason for hope]

26. Florida Panthers — I wouldn’t read too much into this start of this early ranking. They are winless, but it is also only three games. They are not as good as the team that was nearly unbeatable in the second half last season, and they also aren’t as bad as they were at the start of the season. Having said that, we saw last year what a bad start can do to a team and if they are going to be a playoff team they need to start getting wins. Fast.

Fifth Tier: It is going to be a long season

27. Ottawa Senators — A lot of their early success is driven by a 14.6 team-wide shooting percentage through the first five games. Once that levels off and returns to normal the lack of offense combined with the abysmal defense will be a bad combination.

28. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid has scored or assisted on this team’s past nine goals dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season. He is literally the only thing they have right now.

29. New York Rangers — For the most part they have been competitive and in most of their games, but there just isn’t enough talent here to compete at a high level.

30. Arizona Coyotes — There were a lot of reasons for optimism entering the season — and they still exist — but this is not the start anyone in Arizona wanted, having been shutout in three of their first four games.

31. Detroit Red Wings — There are not many positives here right now. They are every bit as bad as they were expected to be. Maybe even a little worse.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Pens’ Justin Schultz out four months with fractured leg

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be without Justin Schultz for a while.

Schultz underwent successful surgery on Sunday to repair a fracture in his lower left leg, according to the team. Schultz was injured on Saturday night in a game against the Montreal Canadiens after falling awkwardly on his leg.

He’s expected to miss four months, pegging his return in the middle of February at the earliest.

Fair warning: the video isn’t for the faint of heart.

Schultz had been producing at a point-per-game rate before getting injured, with four assists in Pittsburgh’s first four games. That was good for second on the team in terms of defensemen scoring behind Kris Letang while averaging over 17 minutes during his first three games.

It goes without saying, but it’s a big blow to the Penguins’ back end.

With Schultz out, the Penguins are going to be looking for players to step up, including his partner Jack Johnson, who signed a five-year deal with the club this summer. Johnson has yet to produce a point so far this season. Olli Maatta is also another candidate that needs to jumpstart his season in a hurry. Maatta has already been a healthy scratch this season, and like Johnson, has yet to put up a point.

The Penguins started the season with Maatta and Johnson together so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them give that a go again.

“We have capable NHL defensemen so I’m confident that we can put guys in that I know can help us win games,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s not an easy guy to replace. He’s a very good player and has been very good for us for a long time. So it’s a tough loss from our standpoint, but certainly we’ve got to be prepared with the guys that we have.”

The injury will also mean more time for rookie Juuso Riikola and Jamie Oleksiak, who could be paired together going forward. Both players have spent time in and out of the lineup early on. Riikola could stand to benefit most from Schultz’s absence, so there’s a big opportunity there for him to grab some extra minutes.

Schultz was the second man over the boards on the power play after Letang. Perhaps Riikola gets a look there as well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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