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Russians in Stanley Cup Final trying to focus on hockey amid country’s war in Ukraine

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Sergei Bobrovsky insists he has not thought about where he would take the Stanley Cup if he and the Florida Panthers win it. He hasn’t been this close before.

Countryman Ivan Barbashev has, celebrating in Moscow with the trophy in 2019. After the Cup was banned from going to Russia last year after the nation’s invasion of Ukraine, he figures it might be the same if he and the Vegas Golden Knights beat Bobrovsky and the Panthers in the final.

Bobrovsky and Barbashev are the only Russian players left in the NHL playoffs, and they go into the final that begins Saturday in Las Vegas with their focus on hockey and not the war now in its 15th month.

“I think it’s not the spot, it’s not the good point to talk about right now,“ Bobrovsky said at media day Friday. ”Right now we (are) focusing on hockey. It’s not about politics or what’s going on anywhere. It’s a big hockey celebration, Stanley Cup Final. I’ve never been in that spot before, and I want to enjoy this opportunity and enjoy this atmosphere.”

Russians in the NHL have largely stayed silent about the war since it began in February 2022, fearing retribution back home as the Kremlin continues to crush dissent and punish those who protest or speak out against what President Vladimir Putin has called a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Russia has been barred from international competition since, and questions remain about a possible World Cup of Hockey in 2025 and what to do about many of the sport’s top players who come from there, including Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has consistently said the NHL’s players from Russia are in a difficult position and that the league does not want to make it any harder on them than it already is. Bettman has rejected any notion, like one proposed by Hall of Fame Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek, of banning Russians because of the war and has said those players represent their NHL teams rather than their country.

The league did sever all business ties in Russia immediately after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Stanley Cup has since not been allowed to go to Russia or close ally Belarus that has assisted in the war, and that policy continues.

“To be honest, I don’t really care,“ Barbashev said. “I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t think the Cup is gonna go to Russia because it didn’t make it there last year. It is what it is, so I’m not really thinking about it.”

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time at age 34 and a front-runner to be the playoff MVP given his stellar play in net, is narrowing his thought process even further. His play has been stellar, and he’s not even thinking about winning four games — just the next one.

“My mind is really short now,“ Bobrovsky said. ”I’m really focused on the present and preparing myself for (games) and approach it one game at a time. And we’ll see what’s going to happen. Right now, it’s not about the Cup, it’s about the focus and get ready to play hockey.”

Barbashev adopted a similar mentality not long after the war began. The first week or so, he received some messages about it but has not since.

“With the time just moving on, you don’t really think about it,” he said.

Barbashev set career highs with 26 goals, 34 assists and 60 points during the 2021-22 season with the Blues, who traded him to Vegas prior to the trade deadline this year. Now 27 and a pending free agent, he’s attempting to keep his mind on the game.

“To me, it was really important to focus on hockey, and that’s what I did last year,“ Barbashev said. ”I had a really good season, basically a breakout year, and I just stick with hockey and try not to think about it.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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