Men's ice hockey teams hit the ice to shake out, shake off expectations
SOCHI -- Along with the balmy subtropical weather, Monday brought the NHL’s cavalcade of players and coaches to Sochi, where in two days, the Olympics’ grandest show will kick off with the Czech Republic’s men’s hockey team taking on Sweden. Full Olympic squads assembled on the ice for the first time, setting the stage for the most anticipated event of these games. Players for Russia, Canada and the U.S. skated at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, shaking off the jet lag and the weight of their nations’ expectations.
But one important person did not make the trip; David Poile, Team USA’s general manager, will stay in Nashville for the duration of the Games after sustaining a facial injury last week. Last Friday, at a morning skate in St. Paul, Minn., where his Predators were playing the Wild, Poile was standing in the tunnel between the rink and dressing room when an errant puck struck him square in the face, fracturing his orbital bone.
He left Minnesota two days later, and will undergo more testing in Nashville, USA Hockey said. The extent of Poile’s injuries are unclear, but he has been and will continue to be in contact with USA Hockey’s management team, including Ray Shero, who will act as GM in Sochi.
“A lot of the work has been done through the group and the committee,” Shero said after the U.S. practiced on Monday. “It’s just too much and too soon for [Poile] to travel. I’m sure he will be watching come Thursday.”
Here are some news items from a busy day at the rink:
Team USA report
Line combinations from practice were as follows:
- Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler and Patrick Kane
- James van Riemsdyk, Joe Pavelski and Phil Kessel
- Zach Parise, David Backes and T.J. Oshie
- Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Ryan Callahan
- Extras: Derek Stepan and Blake Wheeler
After practice, coach Dan Bylsma stressed the importance of established chemistry in a short tournament, so he and his staff looked at historical or current successes when making his initial combinations. The obvious pairings are Kessel and van Riemsdyk -- linemates with the Maple Leafs -- and Backes and Oshie, who play together with the Blues. But other combinations went further back than this season. Kessel played on a line with Pavelski for the U.S. four years ago in Vancouver, as did Kesler and Kane.
- Ryan Suter and Cam Fowler
- Ryan McDonagh and John Carlson
- Kevin Shattenkirk and Paul Martin
- Justin Faulk and Brooks Orpik
Only Orpik and Suter return from the 2010 Olympic team, and it would seem that Orpik might be the seventh or eighth defenseman for Team USA this time around. The bigger, international-sized ice puts a premium on speed and puck distribution, and this relatively young group should work well for the U.S.
Bylsma would not outline his goaltending plan for reporters, though he said that he had made a decision on who will start the first game. It would make sense for the U.S. to start Sabres goalie and 2010 Olympic MVP Ryan Miller, who is the only American goalie who hasn’t been injured this season. With two tough games to start, against Slovakia and Russia, whoever gets the nod between the pipes -- either Miller or the Kings Jonathan Quick, the 2012 Conn Smythe winner -- will be tested early. Should Bylsma's first choice falter, a more-than-suitable backup can pick up the reins.
Pacioretty, who left the Canadiens’ game against the Hurricanes in the first period last Saturday after falling hard into the net, took part in every bit of Monday’s skate. Bylsma said he was a bit worried about Pacioretty after seeing video of his collision with the cage, but was told that the winger's injury wasn’t too serious. Pacioretty, for his part, seemed fine, and excited for his first Olympic experience. He had his first memorable moment, he said, when he flew over to Russia on the same plane as Jaromir Jagr. (Pacioretty, a Connecticut native, was a big Rangers fan when Jagr played in New York.)
“Fifteen years ago, if you’d [told] me I’d be sharing this big stage with Jaromir Jagr, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. An Olympian, still star struck by a colleague.
Team Canada report
Line combinations from practice were as follows:
- Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter
- Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Rick Nash
- John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry
- Mixed combinations for: Patrick Marleau, Jamie Benn, Patrice Bergeron, Matt Duchene and Martin St. Louis
Don’t read too much into Monday’s line combinations. The Canadian management and coaching staff know all too well that what looks good on paper and even in practice can change on a dime, as it did in Vancouver four years ago; Bergeron, who started on Crosby’s wing in Canada’s first game in 2010, didn’t even last a whole game. It wouldn’t be surprising to see these combinations change, especially when games begin. But again, established chemistry will be a theme here, with teammates Kunitz and Crosby, Toews and Sharp, and Getzlaf and Perry all expected to share ice. The thought process on playing Carter with Crosby is that Carter, as a shooter and a goal-scorer, will benefit from Crosby's playmaking abilities. After taking rushes with Crosby in the short session on Monday, Carter said of Canada’s captain, “He’s really good,. You always have to be ready with him. He won’t even be looking at you and the puck’s coming to you.”
- Duncan Keith and Shea Weber
- Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Drew Doughty
- Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo
- Dan Hamhuis and P.K. Subban
Last Thursday, Team Canada announced that Martin St. Louis would replace Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos, who could not return from a broken tibia quickly enough to play in the Olympics. Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman, also the Tampa Bay GM, noted on Monday that the 38-year-old winger did not agree to join the team until the morning after he had been offered the roster spot, following a chat with Team Canada coach Mike Babcock. On Monday, St. Louis looked vibrant on the ice during, taking reps with as many as four different lines. He may be a spare part today, but could quickly work his way into a more prominent role.
Like Bylsma, Babcock did not show his hand on Team Canada’s goalie situation; though he has said he’ll likely split goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Carey Price in the first two games. Babcock rode Luongo to a gold medal in Vancouver four years ago, but Price is coming into the tournament on a hot streak. Earlier on Monday, Price was named the NHL’s First Star of the Week after reeling off three straight victories, including a 42-save performance in a 5-2 win over the Canucks last Thursday. Canada opens against Norway and Austria, hardly hockey powerhouses, which gives Babcock the luxury of seeing both goalies in games that should be easy wins.
Team Russia report:
From Monday’s practice, it seems that Russia will likely put forth an intimidating top six. The Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk is expected to center Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, two highly skilled former NHL players who now perform in the KHL. Capitals winger and national superstar Alex Ovechkin will skate with Penguins center Evgeni Malkin and Hurricanes winger Alexander Semin, Ovechkin’s former linemate in Washington.
Datsyuk did not practice on Monday -- it is believed that he is still bothered by a lower body injury. But coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and the rest of the team were confident the captain would be ready for Russia’s opener on Thursday against Slovenia. Datsyuk missed 14 games in January and February from a reported knee injury, but he did play two games with Detroit before the Olympic break, making him eligible for the Games. In each of those two games, however, he played less than 15 minutes, the first time he’s logged under 15 minutes since January 2012.
Playing at home in front of boisterous and adoring fans, the Russian team has been met with fanfare and mighty expectations in Sochi. They downplayed the pressure on Monday, as expected, but it’s certainly there.
“Everybody believes we can do it, and we believe in ourselves, too,” Kovalchuk said. “Russia never won a gold medal yet, so you can see how much our president and [everyone else] put into building this and putting on the Olympics… They did their job, so now our players have to go [out] there and put on a show.”
There is at least one team that can relate. Said Babcock, the Canadian coach: “The opportunity to be at an Olympics in the home country is a dream come true. And to share [winning] with the fans in Canada was wonderful. I’m sure the Russians are optimistic that they can do the same thing.”