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PHT Time Machine: When the Red Wings’ Russian Five wasn’t celebrated

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Detroit Red Wings’ Russian Five and the questions they initially faced.

History will remember the Detroit Red Wings from the mid-1990s to, let’s say, 2002, as one of the NHL’s all-time great teams.

That is how they should be remembered, anyway. During that run they boasted an extensive list of Hall of Famers, won more games than any team in the league, played in four Stanley Cup Finals in eight years, and won three of them, including one of the few sets of back-to-back titles in recent history.

But if we go back in time to 1995, before the team started its run of championships, the Red Wings were looked at in an entirely different light.

The Background

Even though the team had successfully emerged from the “Dead Wings” era and rebuilt itself into a contender, having played in the Stanley Cup Final during the 1994-95 season where they ultimately lost to the New Jersey Devils, the pressure (and criticism) was still beginning to mount on the core that was in place.

The franchise was riding a Stanley Cup drought that dated back to 1955, and there was serious doubt as to whether or not the team the Red Wings had built was the right team to end it.

Because the NHL at this time was becoming a “bigger is better” kind of game, where everyone thought Stanley Cups were won on the backs of rugged-looking North Americans from Ontario and Minnesota that could grind teams down, the Red Wings were thought to be too small.

They were thought to be too European.

They were thought to lack grit and toughness.

But it did not stop there. Even the players that weren’t “too small” or “too European” faced questions and criticism. Steve Yzerman’s leadership was doubted and there was substantial talk about possibly moving him, even into the 1995-96 season when trade buzz swirled around him, Dino Ciccarelli and Ray Sheppard.

Eventually, a trade did get made on Oct. 24, 1995 when the Red Wings sent Sheppard to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for veteran forward Igor Larionov.

This would prove to be a significant move and forever change the Red Wings, and to an extent, the NHL.

The addition of Larionov gave the Red Wings five prominent players from the former Central Red Army team as he was reunited with Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov, and Vladimir Konstantionov.

Eventually, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman (whose vision and genius was obvious the moment the trade was made) started using all of them together as a five man unit that would be known as the Russian Five.

Today they are celebrated as a legendary unit that dazzled fans and helped make the Red Wings a championship team.

When they were first assembled, they were not celebrated quite as much.

The reaction

As mentioned above, the mindset that dominated the NHL during this time period was that teams had to be big and physical, and that it was impossible to win with a championship with a team that had too much of a European influence because, well, few teams had actually done it. Nobody stopped to think that it hadn’t been done because not many team actually tried it. The belief was that European hockey wasn’t right for the NHL, and that European players — specifically Russians — just did not care about winning the Stanley Cup.

You can call it a lot of things, but you should probably start with what it was: A very xenophobic way of looking at the sport and the league.

Bowman was having none of it.

Take this article from the Detroit Free Press the day after the Sheppard-for-Larionov trade was made, the “prejudicial question” about internal problems the number of non-North American players can cause, and Bowman’s response to a question about “how many Russians is too many?”

This was, again, at a time that critics of the Red Wings felt they need to get bigger and tougher, especially on defense, and instead opted to trade for another undersized Russian forward, one that was yet another center.

But Bowman had a vision for all of these players.

He saw Larionov as a valuable two-way player that was as good on the penalty kill as he was on the power play.

He saw Larionov, Fedorov, and Kozlov as interchangeable players that could play all three forward positions.

Eventually, at the urging of Larionov, he realized the success the former Soviet teams had using their best players as five-man units instead of a traditional line-rolling strategy that mixed up forward lines and defense pairs.

On Oct. 27, 1995, less than a month after Larionov was acquired, the Russian Five was officially born in a 3-0 win against the Calgary Flames, with that unit playing a major role in the win.

“You can bet your boots Calgary is going to come after them with all guns flaring.”

And that was the mindset … that you could push them around, and wear them down with the big, bad scary North American game. Never mind the fact that Fetisov and Konstantinov weren’t exactly “soft” players.

It did not work. At all.

After the unit scored the game’s opening goal 10 minutes into the first period, Larionov (with an assist from Fedorov) would score a shorthanded goal in the third period to put the game away.

The Red Wings would go on to win 62 games that season and reach the Western Conference Final, ultimately losing to the Colorado Avalanche and extending the Stanley Cup drought one more year.

They continued to win the following season, but the Stanley Cup question still lingered.

So let’s fast forward to May, 30, 1997, just before the start of the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers.

A Sporting News article (published in the Ottawa Citizen) profiled the group and attempted to tackle the question about desire and determination to win the Stanley Cup questions.

Some excerpts as various members of the unit had to defend themselves and their desire to win, as well as continued questions about a team with a heavy Russian influence winning the Stanley Cup.

The Aftermath

The Red Wings ultimately ended any doubt as to whether or not their approach and style of play would work, obliterating the Flyers in four games and outscoring them by a 16-6 margin in the series to win the organization’s first Stanley Cup since 1955.

Unfortunately, their Cup-clinching Game 4 win would be the last time the five players would play together as Konstantinov had his career ended due to injuries suffered a limo accident in the days following the championship.

The Red Wings, with Fedorov, Larionov, Kozlov, and Fetisov all playing prominent roles, would go on to win another Stanley Cup the next season in yet another four-game sweep, this time against the Washington Capitals.

Their success would ultimately be a huge moment for the NHL.

For one, it silenced any criticism about teams built around non-North American players and how success was about skill and talent and not size and strength.

Second, it demonstrated the importance of puck possession, something that is still a dominant trend in the NHL today.

Ken Holland’s comments in that video: “You’d come to the rink knowing you were going to win, you just didn’t know what the score was going to be. We had the puck the whole night. If we had a good game we had the puck three quarters of the game, and if we had a bad game we had the puck two-thirds of the game. I can remember going on the road sometimes and beating teams 5-0, 5-1, and had the puck, the other team had no chance.”

Today the Russian Five is remembered as one of the most exciting units the NHL has ever seen and a key component to a dynasty. But it had to overcome a lot of questions and criticism to make people believers at the time.

Previous PHT Time Machines:
 Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
• When the Blues skipped the NHL draft

 Expansion teams build Montreal dynasty
 The 1991 Dispersal Draft and Birth of the San Jose Sharks
• The Eric Lindros Trade That Did Not Happen
The Mighty Ducks and the most insane pregame introduction ever

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.

Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel

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While 24 NHL teams aim to return to play, the Buffalo Sabres will not. Despite seeing a league-leading playoff drought extend to nine consecutive seasons, the Sabres confirmed that GM Jason Botterill will be back. This all translates to deeply frustrating times for Sabres fans — not to mention star Jack Eichel.

And both Eichel and those Sabres fans made some waves with the way they aired their grievances.

Eichel and other Sabres are “fed up with losing”

Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other Sabres vented during recent days. In Eichel’s case, he admitted that he’s “fed up with losing.” When you listen to Eichel, you can hear that mixture of fatigue and anger.

Eichel carries a lot of the burden as the Sabres’ biggest star. Yet, as much as Eichel’s suffered through five years of failures, Rasmus Ristolainen absorbed even more over seven. Rumors circulated that Ristolainen wanted out last summer, and he only (kind of) calmed things down later on.

Maybe that sets the stage for some eyebrow-raising comments? Ristolainen told reporters that he realizes that if someone gets traded, he might be the first to go. The defenseman also acknowledged how comments about building toward the future must make everyone sound like a broken record.

No doubt, missing the postseason in such an embarrassing way has to sting Sabres players like Eichel and Ristolainen. The angst also makes it more awkward for Botterill to try to say all the right things.

With cap space opening up and huge needs still lingering, this is a huge offseason for the Sabres. It also could be a long one in a more literal way, if the 2020-21 season starts in, say, December. Clearly, plenty of Sabres players won’t be feeling very patient if the team suffers through another stretch of setbacks.

Fans share discontent — sometimes creatively

It’s clear — and it’s been clear for a while — that Sabres fans are out of patience, too. (Remember Duane?)

Sabres fan Jill Thompson put the team “up for sale” on Craigslist. While the listing was not very surprisingly removed, Thompson shared a screenshot of it on Twitter:

Thompson wrote this in the listing:

For Sale: NHL Hockey Franchise
Team: Buffalo Sabres
Available: ASAP

*Lost team with diehard fanbase looking for wealthy owner who actually understands hockey*

Organization on the cheap. Could be flipped. Major structural damage but few core pieces still in tact.

Non-Negotiable Terms:
-Franchise must stay in current city and is ineligible for relocation.
-Immediate family (i.e. wife) is not eligible for internal position within the organization
-Must provide “team puppy”

Not crazy about the “immediate family” barb personally, but otherwise? Pretty good. Really, all 31 NHL teams should have at least one puppy.

Thompson explained the listing to the Buffalo News, and capturing the mood of many Sabres fans in the process:

“When I post about the Sabres on Twitter, it’s sadly in a negative light and that is because I am upset for the level of disrespect/lack of accountability/neglect of everything down to the smallest details that we are shown from the owners,” Thompson wrote to the Buffalo News. “As one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports, we deserve better.”

With serious questions lingering regarding goaltending, defense, and forward depth, the Sabres have a long way to go to turn things around. And they might not have a ton of time to win back fans like Thompson.

More on the Sabres

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Beleskey helps Ducks’ winning ways in 2015

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This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

In the first-ever playoff meeting between these two teams, the series was tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5. Jonathan Toews of Chicago forced an overtime period when he scored two goals with under two minutes left in regulation, but Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey scored the winning goal in overtime for the 5-4 win. With the victory, the Ducks improved to 11-3 in the 2015 postseason, tying the NHL record for the most consecutive games to begin the playoffs without a regulation loss.

Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti and Brian Engblom had the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

LA Kings hope late-season surge indicates brighter future

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s hottest team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season prematurely. They’re hoping they can eventually build on that success whenever they get back on the ice.

The team with the NHL’s longest active winning streak won’t get a chance to extend it this season, thanks to the league’s decision this week to limit its playoff tournament to 24 teams. The Kings’ seven straight victories before the stoppage comprised the franchise’s best stretch since December 2017, and it had even pulled them out of last place in the Pacific Division.

The Kings haven’t lost a game since Feb. 23, and their 10-3-1 surge prior to the pause suggests coach Todd McLellan’s work was finally paying off after Los Angeles mostly struggled through the first four months of a rebuilding season. The Kings’ only public comment on the abrupt end came in a statement from team President Luc Robitaille.

”It’s unfortunate that our season has concluded, but we fully understand this was necessary and support the decision,” Robitaille said. ”At the time of the pause, we had made considerable progress in the second half and were seeing positive results and encouraging signs for the future. We’ll now turn our attention to the NHL draft and player development so that we can continue building our organization for long-term success.”

Despite their late success, the Kings already were all but certain to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009.

Even after two straight disappointing seasons, Robitaille, general manager Rob Blake and McLellan all appear to be secure in their jobs and locked in on a long-term plan to return the Kings to Stanley Cup contention.

Los Angeles won the trophy twice in three years before entering a slow decline caused by massive veteran contracts and unimpressive talent development, culminating in the struggles that finally showed signs of ending before the coronavirus upended everyone’s plans.

”If we had a chance to finish the season, we’d want to finish the season,” Robitaille said earlier this month. ”Especially the fact that we have a lot of young players, it’s always good experience for them to play.”

CORE GUYS

A championship-winning veteran core remains in Los Angeles, but the Kings must decide whether to keep it together for another year. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter are all still-productive players locked into big contracts, but Blake knows it’s time to repair the foundation of his franchise to rebuild a winner. Blake values the leadership and experience of those veterans along with longtime depth forward Trevor Lewis, who is the Kings’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles already parted ways with stalwart supporting players Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford in February, and while it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect big changes given the contract obstacles, Blake would be foolish not to consider more ways to get younger and more financially flexible.

FIND THE NET

The Kings were among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams again this season, with Kopitar’s 21 goals and 41 assists easily leading the roster in both categories. Los Angeles had only five 10-goal scorers, while only Kopitar and Alex Iafallo topped 40 points. Despite their offensive struggles, Blake saw progress in the Kings’ implementation of McLellan’s system. ”Clearly we wanted to be a strong-shooting team, a team that got pucks to the net, recovered pucks well and generated offense off that,” Blake said. ”I think the year-end review showed that.”

PING PONG BALLS

The Kings have a 9.5% chance of winning the top pick in the complicated draft lottery this summer. For a franchise that hasn’t drafted a star since Doughty in 2008, a high pick would be an enormous boost. The Kings’ draft carries an added degree of difficulty with the departure of assistant general manager Michael Futa, whose contract expires in June. Still, Los Angeles is in prime position to add another elite talent to a solid pool of prospects including first-rounder Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo and Tyler Madden.

HIGHLIGHTS

Iafallo’s transformation from an undrafted free agent to a consistent NHL scorer in less than three years has been a rare bright spot for the Kings’ recent record of player acquisitions. Ditto for Sean Walker, an undrafted defenseman who played his way into a regular NHL role. Walker’s 24 points this season nearly matched the prolific Doughty, who had 28.

LOWLIGHTS

Carter has two more years left on his 10-year contract extension, but Blake said earlier this month that the 35-year-old veteran scorer wouldn’t have been able to return from his mysterious core injury even if the NHL season had continued for the Kings. And though Adrian Kempe was the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer, his inconsistency aggravated the front office and coaching staff. The Swede will strive for steadier production in the years ahead.

Killorn, Lightning jet ski their way to NHL return in ‘Bolts are Back’

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During some of the dog days of the pandemic pause, Alex Killorn gathered Lightning teammates for some tremendous-cheesy “Dock Talk” videos. It only makes sense, then, that he gathered the gang (“the boys?”) for the best segment yet to celebrate the NHL’s return to play. Yes, the “Bolts are back,” indeed.*

* – In small groups

Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and other Lightning teammates celebrated this announcement — on jet skis, with humor — to the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are back in town.”

(Warning: that song will probably get in your head if you watch the video above. Maybe it already is?)

Enjoy some of the best moments of Killorn’s great “Bolts are back” video.

Splashy highlights of Killorn, Stamkos, other Lightning players in “Bolts are back”

Killorn makes his “directorial debut” with an honestly very nice overhead pool shot. The video starts strong with Stamkos and Killorn being goofy on their jet skis.

Stamkos "Bolts are Back"
What, Stamkos didn’t spring for fancy airpods? (via Killorn)

In a moment of poor sportsmanship/skismanship, an unnamed Bruin (or, most likely, someone wearing a Bruins shirt?) gets splashed. Figure this one out, Internet. I believe this is the same person who gets dumped in the water (while wearing a Maple Leafs shirt?) later on?

Bruins guy in "Bolts are Back"
Well, that’s rude. (via Killorn)

While there’s plenty of room for debate, I’d argue that Andrei Vasilevskiy (aka “Big Cat”) earns the nod for best cameo. We catch him lifting weights, and grunting something — maybe “you’re the man?” — before spotting his Lightning pals.

Vasilevskiy Big Cat "Bolts are Back"
Do goalies need to be that ripped? Asking for Dominik Hasek. (via Killorn)

Like many great filmmakers, Killorn tackles class when he features Lightning teammate Anthony Cirelli in one of the more memorable sequences of “Bolts are Back.” Notice that Cirelli (“Rocco”) is waiting tables before being summoned. You see, Cirelli is on an entry-level contract. Is his artificially deflated contract being referenced by Killorn?

Clearly.

Judging by Cirelli abandoning his duties, it’s not only good that the Bolts are back, and so seemingly is the NHL. It’s also promising that Cirelli’s due a raise as a pending RFA.

Other cast members

Not every appearance was as strong as a grunting big cat. Then again, maybe it boils down to repeat viewings, because Mikhail Sergachev‘s fanny pack and cat moved up the power rankings over time:

Sergachev cat
Almost a dog-like pose? Not complaining. (via Killorn)

Clearly, Braydon Coburn and/or Killorn are well-schooled on action movie tropes. At least, that’s my headcanon for Coburn being interrupted while cutting wood. Doesn’t that happen in every thriller involving a reluctantly returning hero? Anyway, Coburn joining the group with an open shirt earns one of the bigger laughs:

Braydon Coburn cameo
Alrighty then, “Kobayashi.” (via Killorn)

Killorn isn’t yet at that “obsessive auteur director” level just yet, as I imagine a control freak would have been maddened by the imperfect skiing V:

imperfect V "Bolts are back"
Maddening. (via Killorn)

(Seriously, who is the straggler? Could Cirelli’s jet ski not keep up? Class rears its ugly head again.)

Killorn ties it all together with another great joke: “The Bolts are back” — in small groups.

"Bolts are Back" -- in small groups
(via Killorn)

Killorn actually might be right about the whole “breakout influencer of the year” thing, honestly.

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.