SOCHI, Russia – Alex Ovechkin summed up the feelings of a hockey proud nation with two simple words. “It sucks.”
That was even before coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov singled out his star player during the Russian Inquisition that followed another quarterfinal exit at the Olympics. Never mind trying to stick together, win or lose. Or mentioning that the hosts had been beaten by a better Finnish team.
When the moment of truth arrived, it was Ovechkin that the beleaguered coach offered up as the culprit for this particular disappointment. The first question following a 3-1 loss at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Wednesday sounded innocent enough: Why did the talented Russians only manage to score eight times in five games?
The answer from Bilyaletdinov, as translated to a jam-packed media conference, was telling. And biting.
“Well, it’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score, especially the players who usually score a lot in their games, especially Alexander Ovechkin, who scored over 40 goals. I cannot explain so far.”
These were meant to be Ovechkin’s Games – just as the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver ended up being Sidney Crosby’s Games – and you couldn’t miss the symbolism when he scored on his very first shift of the tournament. Try as he might, that was the only goal Ovechkin would deliver in Sochi.
A bigger issue for the Russians than even playing on home ice was always going to be coming together as a team. They were naturally split into two separate groups. On one side, you had the KHLers that spent more than a week training together in Kazan prior to arriving for the Olympics; on the other, you had Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and the other NHL stars.
There was never much evidence of on-ice synergy – although the line of Pavel Datsyuk (NHL), Ilya Kovalchuk (KHL) and Alexander Radulov (KHL) did contribute offensively – while behind the scenes there were rumblings of descent among the ranks. The whispers were particularly strong about a growing rift between Malkin, Ovechkin and Bilyaletdinov.
It seemed to come down to style of play and linemates. Malkin and Ovechkin started with Alex Semin on their wing before eventually seeing KHLer Alexander Popov placed there. That unit wasn’t able to generate anything.
“No emotions,” said Ovechkin.
Amid the tears for Mother Russia there were also questions about Bilyaletdinov’s handling of the group – and not very many answers during a tense post-game press conference. His decision to employ a trapping system, his use of a weak defence corps (Evgeni Medvedev played more than Fedor Tyutin and Evgeni Malkin, for example) and his decision to start Semyon Varlamov in the quarterfinals all played a result in the final outcome.
Ultimately, the better team won.
The Finns may have been hit hard with injuries leading up to and during this event, but they remain a fast-skating group that plays a patient system. Having Rask, one of the top goaltenders in the world, certainly helps, too.
Early on, everything seemed to be falling into place for the Russians. The team had spent considerable practice time working on a struggling power play in recent days and Kovalchuk promptly gave them a 1-0 lead with the man advantage thanks to a rocket of a one-timer.
“We looked pretty good,” said Ovechkin. “Two mistakes cost us the game.”
The first saw Juhamatti Aaltonen go on a solo drive to the goal and tie it 1-1. Then Mikael Granlund roared past Slava Voynov before feeding captain Teemu Selanne to put the Finns up for good.
Varlamov was pulled for Sergei Bobrovsky after allowing the third goal to Granlund and there was still half the game to play. Fans chanted “Shaybu! Shaybu!” but the goals didn’t come. By the late stages of the third period some of the Russian flags that had filled the building had been taken down.
Everyone expected more. Even Swedish coach Par Marts took the unusual step of predicting a victory for Russia after his team moved onto the semifinals earlier Wednesday. Instead, the Swedes will be getting a familiar – and motivated – rival in Friday’s semifinal matchup.
“In many ways, I feel sorry for (Russia) because they had an unbelievable team and players,” said Selanne. “But it’s just a sport, come on. It’s nothing at all. It’s a game.”
The Finnish captain went on to send his condolences directly to Ovechkin, who finished with a tournament-leading 24 shots on goal for Russia. Everyone knew how important this event was to No. 8 and there was certainly no questioning his work ethic or desire. Only the execution was off.
Bilyaletdinov made it clear that he wouldn’t stick around Sochi to see how the rest of the tournament plays out. “No, I’d rather leave,” he said. Not before getting in a shot at Ovechkin on his way out.
What a turn of events.