Column: Too late to put Putin back in a uniform? - NBC Sports

Column: Too late to put Putin back in a uniform?
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Russia forward Valeri Nichushkin reacts after scoring against Slovenia in the third period of a men's ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
February 13, 2014, 12:44 pm

SOCHI, Russia (AP) The hometown lads started so fast that you half-expected to see Vladimir Putin, the 60-year-old president who suited up for an exhibition game here last month, slip back into a uniform and take a few shifts. Maybe Maria Sharapova, too.

Russia vs. Slovenia was always going to be a mismatch. But the hosts' shaky 5-2 win in Thursday's opener turned out to be cold comfort for a nervous nation hoping to reconnect with its glorious - but increasingly distant - hockey past.

Russia got the first goal when Alex Ovechkin roofed a wrister just over a minute into the game. The second came less than three minutes later when Ovechkin, who plays for the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals, came up with a new variation on the old Statue of Liberty play. He stopped the puck just outside the Slovenia blue line and then stood still, dummying the defense while speeding teammate Evgeni Malkin scooped up the disc and zoomed in untouched for another easy score.

The cheerleaders lining every staircase at the Bolshoy Ice Dome began swaying in unison, and fans wearing the blue, red-and-white Russia jerseys - including a few sporting throwback red "C.C.C.P" versions, evoking memories of the old Soviet Union's "Big Red Machine" Olympic dynasty - responded by howling at the top of their lungs.

But things got quiet almost as soon as the second period began. After managing just four shots and one legit scoring chance in the opening 20 minutes, the Slovenians notched an early goal from Ziga Jeglic to pull within 2-1. The building went eerily quiet for the next 15 minutes after that, then revived briefly when Malkin netted his second during a power play, on a snapshot from the slot, with some two minutes left in the period.

But barely a minute later, back came Jeglic, squirming between two Russian defenders and finally slipping the puck past keeper Semyon Varlamov with all the oomph of a hotel bill arriving under the door. No matter. It counted, and suddenly Slovenia was back within 3-2 and hardly looking like such a pushover anymore.

"Didn't seem like in that first period they were nervous," recalled Jeglic, who plays professionally in Germany. "Then we said in our locker room, we have nothing to lose."

We can only imagine what Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov told his charges after the second period.

"We have 15 players from the NHL, they have one! And his father is probably the only man in the country who knows enough about hockey to be the coach! We have 27 shots, they have eight! We have 70 times more people, 825 times the number of square miles - and some of you are going to wind up living in a very remote corner, with very few inhabitants, if you don't go out there and turn this around!"

What Bilyaletdinov said he told his side was slightly less dramatic.

"Lots of beautiful passes, but at the end of the day, all that matters is scoring goals. I tried to explain to them," he said, "there are some things we need to fix."

So they did. Valeri Nichushkin and Anton Belov scored for Russia three minutes apart, the second coming after Slovenian netminder Robert Kristan had dropped his knees expecting a low shot from the point. When Belov's high drive hit the net and the goal horn sounded, Kristan pitched forward and lay face down on the ice for a few seconds, knowing his side wasn't going to find its way back from the deficit.

Beating Russia at home was always going to be a big ask for Slovenia. As for other teams, "it's going to be tough," said Anze Kopitar, who plays for the Los Angeles Kings and is Slovenia's only NHL entrant.

"It's kind of like going in a road rink in the NHL, and some rinks are tougher than others," he added, "and I'm sure this is going to be no different."

On the contrary.

If the Russians can't play any better than this, they're going to get bounced from the tournament by the time the medals are being handed out and perhaps even sooner. Considering their lineage - after the Big Red Machine made its debut at the 1956 games, the Soviets won seven of the next nine (and an eighth if you count the Unified Team in 1992) - and adding that Putin himself has said anything less than a medal would be cause for some serious reflection, this Russian team is in trouble.

How much depends on where you sit. After the game a reporter asked Bilyaletdinov whether it would be "a death sentence" to leave Varlamov in the net for Russia's next game against the United States, which pummeled a much-better Slovakia team 7-1 in its opener.

"Every player," the stone-faced coach responded, "has a chance to be in for any of the games."

At this rate, maybe even Putin.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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