U.S. hockey displays ‘kind of depth’ that ‘you need to have’

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SOCHI, Russia – It may not be blessed with a superstar like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but the United States men’s hockey team showed Thursday what four solid lines with a healthy mix of talent, tenacity and chemistry can do.

A dominant 7-1 win over Slovakia was how the U.S. opened its 2014 Olympic tournament. Paul Stastny scored twice while skating between wingers Max Pacioretty and T.J. Oshie on a line that was technically the Americans’ fourth, but sure didn’t play that way.

Not that the trio’s effectiveness surprised head coach Dan Bylsma.

“We talked about it going into the game,” said Bylsma, “that the line of Stastny, Pacioretty, and Oshie could be our best line in this game, and it turned out to be that for us.

“Not only did they find themselves on the score sheet, I think every time over the boards they made something positive happen with their shifts, with their offensive zone time. That’s the kind of depth throughout your lineup that you need to have, that we do have.”

Phil Kessel had a big game as well, finishing with a goal and two assists while showing off his already-proven chemistry with Toronto teammate James van Riemsdyk, who assisted on Kessel’s second-period tally.

“He is on fire,” van Riemsdyk said of Kessel. “It is fun to play with him and the game is coming really easy to him right now. He is working hard and creating a lot.”

The pair of Maple Leafs, centered by Joe Pavelski, also combined to set up John Carlson for the game’s first goal.

On top of all that, Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler – usually on opposite sides of a fierce (or at least once-fierce) rivalry in the NHL – seemed to click, with the former setting up the latter for the one-timer game-winner early in the second period.

“He’s always looking for you,” Kesler said of playing with Kane. “He’s always dangerous when he gets the puck. For whatever reason, we seem to be reading off each other well, and I like playing with him a lot.”

And remember that finding chemistry in rapid fashion is especially important in a short tournament like the Olympics, where there’s so little time to gel before the win-or-go-home games begin.

“You need to figure out each other’s lines quick, get chemistry,” said Kesler. “If you do that, you’re going to be successful.”

Next up for the Americans? A date Saturday with the host Russians in the showcase contest of the preliminary round.

Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Alex Semin. Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russians may not have the kind of forward depth the Americans showed off today, but Bylsma – who coaches Malkin in Pittsburgh – doesn’t know if any team can match the hosts’ top-end skill.

“Their team is very talented,” said Bylsma, “maybe the most talented in the tournament, with some of the star players they have. Evgeni Malkin, I’ve seen him do things that I don’t know what he’s going to do next, and how he does it offensively and with the puck.

“So to have a game plan, or to tell someone what to expect, you might have to expect the unexpected against a player of that ilk, how talented he is. … It’s not just going to be one or two players on their team that we have to be concerned with. We may have a little more information on how to get to Evgeni Malkin, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the full story.”

Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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Novak Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to win his record-extending 10th Australian Open title and tie Rafael Nadal for the men’s record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles.

Djokovic regained the world No. 1 ranking, one year after being deported from Australia over his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

He can pass Nadal, and take sole possession of the men’s Slam titles record, at the French Open, where Nadal has won a record 14 titles, starting in late May.

Djokovic celebrated match point by pointing to the side of his head and then to his heart inside Rod Laver Arena, where he is 20-0 in semifinals and finals.

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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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