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When a win isn’t good enough: Russian hockey team ‘only’ beats Slovenia 5-2

Sochi Olympics Ice Hockey Men

Russia goaltender Semyon Varlamov reacts as team Slovenia celebrates a second period goal during a men’s ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Mark Humphrey

Make no mistake about it: the men’s Olympic hockey format calls for blowouts, so it’s that much tougher for the Russian team to spin Thursday’s performance as anything but shaky. They defeated Slovenia 5-2 in their opening game, but much like when Harvard “beat” Yale 29-29, the score will be judged very differently in context.

Not winning enough

As the host country with NHL superstars such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk on its roster, Russia was the gold medal choice for many. That might remain the case after this shaky start, but when you compare this three-goal margin of victory to the U.S. beating a dark horse metal contender in Slovakia 7-1, many observers must feel a little nervous about the host country’s chances.

To give you an idea of the chasm between Russia and Slovenia, consider the difference in the two country’s hockey programs:

Could it be a matter of goaltending?

There is no doubt that Russia was the better team on the ice; the final score and shot differential (35-14) make that pretty evident.

Still, if you compare it to Finland thumping Austria 8-4 (shots 52-20), Russia pales by comparison. Fair or not, some might believe that this provides evidence that Sergei Bobrovsky deserves to tend net over Semyon Varlamov, who allowed two goals on 14 shots.

It’s an overreaction to read too much into Russia “only” winning 5-2, yet when you’re in a hockey-mad nation that hasn’t won gold since 1992, overreactions are to be expected.

Follow James O’Brien @cyclelikesedins