Why did Russia’s hockey team fall flat in Sochi?
For hockey (and really sports) fans in Sochi, the reaction to Russia bowing out of the Olympic tournament following a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland can be summarized as such:
The rest of us can at least ask questions like “How?” and “Why?” Here are the potential roots of Russia’s demise, with copious amounts of help from Pro Hockey Talk.
Playing in your host country can be a big advantage ... unless it creates enough pressure that players start thinking too much. Alex Ovechkin acknowledged the anxiety but ultimately shrugged it off to NBC’s Joe Posnanski before the Olympics started.
“Of course there’s pressure,” Ovechkin said. “It’s your whole country.”
VIDEO: Mike Milbury says “a loss like this lasts a lifetime”
When Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to calm people down about a controversial goal, you know a country takes a sport seriously.
Everyone has their own view of what “the best team possible” is, but some countries must satisfy more “political” issues. Like, say, acknowledging the Russian-centric KHL (widely considered the second most prominent hockey league to the NHL).
While some of these players have appeared in the NHL before, it’s still notable how many players were plucked from an inferior league (let’s exclude Ilya Kovalchuk for obvious talent-related reasons):
Alexander Yeryomenko, Ilya Nikulin, Yevgeni Medvedev, Viktor Tikhonov, Alexander Svitov, Alexander Popov, Alexei Tereshenko and Alexander Radulov.
Radulov is talented - if wildly polarizing - in his own right, but maybe Russia put too much pressure on top players? Let’s not forget that depth players can make a big difference; a certain fellow named T.J. Oshie wasn’t a lock to make the U.S. roster by any means.
If the Olympic tournament wasn’t such a speedy blur, one could almost imagine people taking sides with goalies Semyon Varlamov (#TeamVarly?) and Sergei Bobrovsky (#TeamBob). Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov waffled between the two, including starting Varlamov in today’s elimination game after going with Bobrovsky in Tuesday’s do-or-die contest.
Naturally, Varlamov was pulled for Bobrovsky during Wednesday’s game.
The power play
With names like Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk available, you’d think that the Russian power play would be a nightmare. It was ... but usually for the Russian team itself.
Their struggling power play unit was a storyline for much of the playoffs, even after an easy qualification playoff game against Norway.
Fair or not, Russian players frequently get blamed in NHL playoff losses. Aside from the Malkin - Datsyuk - Radulov line and Kovalchuk, many Russian scorers would probably admit that they are disappointed with their tournament play. Others will ... likely use harsher words.
Russian coach singles out Alex Ovechkin. "I can not explain" how he didn't score more than one goal.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 19, 2014
(The word “choke” will almost undoubtedly be trotted out.)
It’s easy to beat up on Russia, but it’s not like they lost to bad teams. The U.S. is the defending silver medal winners from 2010 and Finland is a steady international threat (especially on larger ice surfaces). Some believe that Tuukka Rask is the best goalie in the world; he was in net for a Boston Bruins team that kept Malkin and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins from recording a single point in a 2013 playoff series, after all.
Whatever way you slice it, it’s difficult to overstate how much this failure hurts the Russian team and their country as a whole. It’s likely those involved will be soul-searching for many years following this resounding finish.