Russia coach dumps on Ovechkin after loss to Finland
When the buzzer sounded and the country froze, Evgeni Malkin dropped to his knees as if he had been shot, alone at the blue line, away from all his teammates.
It was over.
The great Olympic dream had ended sooner than anyone expected. The chance to turn back the clock — or maybe forward — was gone. The opportunity to show the world what their game, Russian hockey, was all about. The one thing that mattered more than anything else to the host country at the Winter Olympics was gone, over without even much of an argument.
The picture of Malkin, blank-faced, head down, like the rest of his teammates, unable to comprehend what had just happened, was stark and telling. A snapshot of disappointment with whistling from the stands, the equivalent of Russian boos: He was an individual on a team of individuals.
And not long after the 3-1 loss to Finland, eliminating the Russians from the hockey tournament, there were already reports of finger-pointing.
There were a lot of fingers to go around.
The overmatched coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, was quick to poke at Alexander Ovechkin, who scored just one goal at the Olympics.
Vancouver was a disaster for the Russians.
This was worse.
“It’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score,” he said. “Especially Alexander Ovechkin. He has 40 goals in the NHL. I cannot explain.”
Behind the media zones, there were already scattered reports that Ovechkin and Malkin had a confrontation with their coach. There is much to answer for here, a country with the best top-of-the-lineup talent in the hockey tournament, scoring eight goals in five games.
When Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Canada House the other day, he wished the Canadians well.
“Except in hockey,”
He wasn’t kidding.
And now, it is certain there will be more stories told, more explanations of why this collection of high-end talent couldn’t find a way to be a team.
Ovechkin, whose face is plastered everywhere around Sochi, was smiling and talkative when the tournament began.
His country. His team. His time to shine.
When it ended Wednesday, he raced through the media zone, just like his team, with almost nothing to say, no real answers. He only stopped for his network obligation.
He did tell Elliotte Friedman of CBC that this was his Olympics, his team.
He did take some ownership. But like almost all of Ovechkin’s career, the end came with doubt and disappointment.
For the third straight Olympics, the once-great Russians are without a medal. Of maybe more significance is the fact no Russian team has won a best-on-best world event since 1981.
The genius of years gone by seems more a history lesson. That was another place, another team. This was a team of dysfunction, with three wins, two losses, playing a system ill-suited to their skills, starting the wrong goaltender, too often utilizing the wrong players, with a static coach unable or unwilling to make in-game alterations.
The layers of what went wrong were thick.
He put out his lines 1-2-3, 1-2-3 (occasionally using his fourth line) and then repeated it again. He didn’t shorten his bench in the third period. He didn’t alter his lines. He didn’t seem to adjust, in any way, to the trapping Finns. He had the Russians playing counter-punch against a team that didn’t punch. And it was telling, that after a television timeout with about seven minutes to play, he didn’t put out his first or second line.
He put out Nikolai Kulemin and the third Russian line. Combined goals in the Olympics: Zero. In the final minutes, it appeared as though the entire team had accepted defeat.
Bilyaletdinov, certain to be removed as coach after the Olympics, played Malkin and Ovechkin together, even though it was suggested it didn’t work four years ago. Didn’t work then, didn’t work now.
“Something happened,” said the coach. “Something didn’t work out.”
When asked about his players, he said: “I can’t say anything bad about them.”
But he had already singled out Ovechkin.
“One goal is too little,” he said of the Russian scoring in the game.
It came on the power play. At even strength, the patient, smart, disciplined Finns, with the remarkable Tuukka Rask in goal, systematically defeated the Russians.
They were better-coached, better-prepared.
“A lot of times, they were trying to go 1-against-4,” said Olli Jokinen, the Finnish forward. “We followed our game plan.”
The implication was clear. The Russians didn’t.
“They showed us how to play hockey,” said Anton Belov, the young Russian defenceman. “It was a team playing against (individuals).”
The Russians will now depart their home Olympics, with the NHL players heading back to North America, the KHL players certain to face more abuse. The question of the combination of varying systems and less cohesion will not go away quietly.
“It’s my fault,” said Bilyeletdinov, who will not stay for the rest of the Olympics. He surprisingly chose Semyon Varlamov to start in goal over Sergei Bobrovsky, and ended up pulling Varlamov after he allowed three goals on 15 shots.
Whatever he attempted — and it wasn’t much — he failed.
“There were great hopes placed on us and we didn’t live up to them,” said centre Pavel Datsyuk.
His big eyes were sad.
The country today is full of big, sad eyes and the need to understand just what went wrong.
CANADA PLAYS A PART
Team Canada didn’t play the Russians last night, but it played a large part in their shocking defeat.
To a man, the Finns said their team’s confidence grew leaps and bounds after barely losing to Canada in the round-robin portion of the Olympic hockey tournament. They built off that game to send Russia home early with a 3-1 win at the Bolshoy Ice Palace.
As Olli Jokinen said post-game, the Finns felt if they could compete against the NHL stars on Team Canada, they were certain they could play well against the favoured Russians.
“A lot of us are third-, fourth-line players, a lot of ours guys play KHL,” said Jokinen. “We don’t have a lot of stars.
“Our country, we could use 20 different guys here. Even if none of us would be here, the results would be pretty close to the same. Whoever plays for this team, does the same thing, shift-to-shift. We believe in our system.
“And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from where you’ve been playing, how your season is going. Once you put the jersey on, there’s the pride and the price to pay and we’ve been able to do that year after year.”
Even if they are always pegged as underdogs and shouldn’t be. Finland is the only team to have won medals in each of the Olympics since the introduction of NHL players and still manage to get overlooked. They played for gold in Turin and probably should have won.
They have a national way of playing and it works with coach Erkka Westerlund demanding a certain discipline and patience from his team. In a matchup of coaches, Westerlund absolutely outworked Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.
“Maybe one day we’ll get respect,” said Jokinen.
Goalie Tuukka Rask, one of the best in the world, already gets that. But the Finnish forwards and defencemen, with so many players missing due to injury, are much more than the sum of their parts.
Two young players who have emerged here are Pittsburgh defenceman Olli Maatta and Minnesota forward Mikael Granlund, who scored once, set up another on Wednesday.
“A huge win,” said captain Teemu Selanne. “We had nothing to lose. We weren’t supposed to win. They had all the pressure. I think they were out of gas a little bit and we tried to take advantage of that. The game plan worked.”
Who should Russians blame for the loss?