Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Big Red Machine grinds to a halt

It was supposed to be different.
The Russian hockey team, packed with NHL stars and playing in front of a partisan home crowd in Sochi – how better for Russia to win its first Olympic gold since Soviet days?
Instead, all they got was schooled by a 43-year-old Finn.
It started so promisingly, too. The Russians may have lost to the U.S. 3-2 on a shootout in the preliminaries, but everyone agreed that game was an instant classic. It was physical and fast from start to finish, with players using the extra creative opportunities offered by the larger Olympic ice.
Sure, losing that shootout was going to be painful – it was the U.S. after all - but it was only the preliminaries and no one went home. It shouldn’t have broken Russia, but it did.
From then on, the Russian stars – Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Koavlchuk – lacked any semblance of coordination, as if they’d just been introduced to one another and asked to play a scrimmage. Russia went 100 game minutes without scoring a goal, all the way through a tedious shootout win over Slovakia. That meant a first-round playoff game with Norway that the Russians won with all the charisma of cold cabbage soup.
Russia may have been trying to recapture the glory of the Soviet Big Red Machine, but it looked as threatening as Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Despite that, Wednesday’s 3-1 quarterfinal defeat to Finland came as a shock. Crashing out of the Olympics wasn’t in the script. It was especially unsettling to see Ovechkin, whose gap-toothed grin adorned so much Olympic advertising, trudge off the ice and say: “I have no emotions” as the Bolshoy Ice Dome echoed with jeers.
The signs of imminent failure had been there, but no one wanted to believe them. After all, what were Slovakia and Norway? Surely Russia would play better against a big team like Finland. It seemed that way for a few minutes when Kovalchuk fired in a slapshot to give Russia a 1-0 lead, but then the tide changed.
Juhamatti Aaltonen started the fightback, picking up the puck from a faceoff and marveling at the space Russia allowed him before scoring on goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
After that, an unlikely hero came forth. Finland has a solid, mostly NHL roster, but with no real stars, unlike the Russians, and it was the unglamorous Teemu Selanne of the unglamorous Anaheim Ducks who made the difference. Aged 43, he played his first Olympic tournament before some of the other players on the ice were even born, but Selanne rolled back the years with a goal and assist to put the game beyond Russia’s reach.
The host nation tried to respond, pulling hapless goaltender Varlamov for Sergei Bobrovsky, but Finland played strong defensive hockey and Tuukka Rask was on solid form in net.
Afterwards, as the jeering died down and the crowd filed out of the arena, the search began for someone to blame. One obvious target is Varlamov, who was at fault in some way for each of the Finnish goals. Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov wants to stay and hasn’t been fired yet, but it’s hard to see how he can cling on.
Maybe there’s something else to blame, though. The Russians were under unimaginable pressure to win gold on home ice. When a small crack appeared, like an otherwise meaningless preliminary shootout, the whole structure fell apart.
Maybe the problem lies not with individual players but with the sheer weight of expectation. Two days before the game, President Vladimir Putin said the Russian hockey team was “the best” at the Olympics with a clear subtext – they should win gold. Three months earlier, the team received an open letter from 16 former Olympics champions with the message “don’t let Russia down.” In hindsight, those ostensibly supportive gestures could have sown the seeds for failure.
Still, there’s always another chance. There’s no reason any of Russia’s top players should be missing at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and many will still be around in 2022. By then, captain Pavel Datysuk will be 43, the same age as Selanne, and it could be time for someone else to get schooled.