Alex Ovechkin and his friends have left Vancouver by now, and surely that’s a good thing. For the greatest conglomeration of hockey talent we may ever see, Team Russia played like amateurs. The 2010 Men’s Olympic hockey tournament was a disaster for the Russians, and that comes as a surprise to many of us. But why did the Russian Machine break? (Did you really think we’d let that go?)
I’m sorry, Vyacheslav Bykov, but the ruble stops here. The Russian roster sported six shoes-in for the hall of fame, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from the team’s performances against Slovakia and Canada. The man they call “Slava” failed to build cohesion among his team, as evidenced in a desperate offense and disparate defense. When we saw Ovechkin or Malkin abandon the passing game to mount futile, one-man offensives into hostile territory, that’s a clear symptom of an unregulated team. It was Bykov’s job to teach his players to trust one another and build competence among the forward trios. He simply failed, and that’s why Russia’s offense was a series of would-be Rambo assaults on a distant net instead of the well-oiled Kalashnikov it should have been.
It’s also the job of the head coach to make a hard decision and make it in a timely fashion. As Nabokov was fed to the Canadian wolves in the first period of Wednesday’s match-up, most coaches would have done the sensible thing and pull him. Summiting a three-goal deficit is difficult, after all, but not impossible. But Bykov did the unthinkable: nothing. Not only did he not pull the siege-adled keeper, he didn’t even shuffle the defensive pairings. In the first period alone, the Canadians thusly delivered an obscene 21 count of shots, 4 of which became goals, and rendered the last 40 minutes of hockey a mere formality for the Canucks. If we were to poll 12 NHL coaches on their decision in the same situation, we’d have a dozen dudes in suits calling Bykov a dummy.
Slava is notorious for flouting his nose at the NHL. Although drafted in ’89, he declined to play for the Nordiques (okay, can’t fault him for that) and instead spent his career in the USSR and Swiss hockey leagues. Curious it is that both Russia’s coach and nine of its players were non-NHLers — a higher proportion than any other (medal-contending) team. I don’t want to cast aspersions on international hockey leagues, but those KHL’ers combined for a -9 against Canada and never looked equal to the task. If using KHL talent was some kind of political message from Team Russia, it probably backfired in a big way.
This is not to say that the Russian team was bad. They actually looked frighteningly good early on. But Russia had the distinct misfortune of playing Latvia first. It’s hard not to play like gods when the competition plays like ants. That 8-2 scrubbing might have tricked the Ruskies into thinking that their omega-level talent alone would be enough to get them on the podium. That is folly.
And even among the superstars, performances were uneven. Ovechkin was silenced in the loss against Slokavia. Alex Semin had a few slick passes, one monster check, but also a gamut of sloppy giveaways. Ilya Kovalchuk‘s only contribution to the tournament was the sixth of the eight goals scored against the Latvians in the first round. For the life of me, I cannot recall why the trade hype around him was so high.
For teams like the Washington Capitals, the power play is a knockout punch The daunting effectiveness of the unit (25.6%) sends a message to opponents: you’re dealing with an offensive juggernaut; commit a penalty at your own peril. But the Russians scored three measly times on nineteen opportunities despite having a PP unit (Kovalchuk, Semin, Ovechkin, Malkin, Gonchar) that give goalies nightmares. To our confoundment, Bykov put Ovechkin in the crease and not the point, far from anywhere he could make the plays he’s known for.
Russian power plays had two inevitabilities: over passing leads to a takeaway and clear, or sloppy set up at center ice leads to a poke-check and clear. That’s the kind of trouble the Capitals had in early October, before Bruce Boudreau made some bold changes and ran enough odd-man drills to instill some discipline on his boys. Without someone willing to crack the whip like that, Russia’s PP floundered.
And discipline might have been a crucial deficit, too. Alexander Ovechkin, as much as we love him, can be wont to exuberance. Evgeni Malkin, too, has been known to shun his team and play alone. Alexander Semin can be an unmitigated disaster when he wanders away from BB’s patronage. Even having a cerebral veteran like Sergei Fedorov on the bench did not do much to temper the attitude. Judhing by their press coverage, the public face of the Russian team was two-fold: alternating between spurning and arrogant. A period of asceticism following the Slovakian upset was warranted, but what press did leak out was as boastful and foolish as the stars’ play.
Lastly, Semyon Varlamov is world’s first Soviet ninja/goalie. He’s unproven, young, recovering from an injury, and the perfect guy to play against Canada. Granted, Bykov would have been lambasted in the press if he had suited up Varly on Wednesday, but that wouldn’t have been any worse than the calls he actually did make that night. Remember last spring, when Semyon the Savior focused his chi and shut down the New York and Pittsburgh without much help from his defensive attendants? That’s exactly the sort of magic that could have propelled Russia past the Canadian onslaught. But nyet; it was not to be. Instead we were given a show by Evgeni Nabokov, a goalie who so hated his position that wandered halfway to the damn blueline a few times. It was just not his night.
The Russian Olympic hockey team was disappointment manifested. Never in the history of Olympic hockey has a team so deeply stocked with talent failed to reach even the most meager measurements of competence. Alex, Alex, Geno, Ilya, Sergei, Viktor, and the rest are no doubt crestfallen from what has transpired. And by all rights, they should be. They played as a group of individuals only scarcely fitting the definition of a team. Despite boasting some of the marquee talent in contemporary hockey, they had no discernible leadership, least of all where it counts most: behind the bench.
All RMNB staff writers except for Fedor (curiously a Russian himself, perhaps he had insider information?) picked Russia to medal in the tournament. Out of embarrassment we have decided to scrap our pool (current pot: $4.53, a Chipotle gift card, and a used Caps ticket to be redeemed for Wings). All predictions seem to do is mock the arrogant. We’ll focus our energy instead on our new love, a team that inspires us with its egalitarianism, its anonymous heroics, and its Garnier Fructis quality hairstyling.
All aboard the Team USA bandwagon!
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