Nightmare ending for Team Russia
The weight of the gold-medal quest just too heavy a burden for host nation
Rask, Finland Oust Russia In Quarterfinals
It was that kind of day, that kind of tournament, that kind of nightmare Olympics for the most marketable Russian hockey player in the world.
Make no mistake, the Washington Capitals captain will wear this massive Russian Olympic hockey failure around his neck, fair or not.
"Well, it's difficult to explain why we didn't score, especially the players who usually score a lot in their games, especially Alexander Ovechkin, who scored over 40 goals. I cannot explain so far," Russia's coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, said through an interpreter on the very first question of a packed news conference.
Ovechkin was hardly the only passenger on a Russian team that seemed to wilt under the pressure of a host nation's golden dreams. Linemate Evgeni Malkin could not have been more invisible in this tournament, for example. But it's Ovechkin who is the poster boy for Russian hockey, whose face adorns Coca-Cola machines here.
It all started so darn perfectly, with Ovechkin scoring just 77 seconds into this Olympics, a zinger of a wrist shot to the top corner against Slovenia and you were thinking, what a way to get things going for him.
Then, zero goals. Nada. Nothing. Not a single goal the rest of the tournament.
As the buzzer sounded Wednesday after the 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland, Ovechkin skated toward the bench, staring seemingly into space, no doubt wishing he could be anywhere but here.
He had let his country down. In this, his Olympics.
"It sucks. That's all I can say," Ovechkin said afterward.
Asked what his emotions were, he answered:
"No emotion right now."
Sidney Crosby got the golden goal in his Olympics four years ago. Alex Ovechkin was the golden goat in his.
And yet, just like Team Canada's home victory four years ago was so much more than just Crosby (Jonathan Toews was named top forward in the tournament), Ovechkin is hardly alone in the blame game.
• The failure of the KHL and NHL players on the roster to blend into a cohesive team was clear and apparent. There were rumors in the past few days of tension in the Russian camp, and at the heart of it was the KHL-NHL issue. Why in the world was Alexander Popov playing on the top line with Ovechkin and Malkin the past two games? Why was KHL defenseman Evgeni Medvedev among the leaders in ice time on the team, playing more than NHLers such as Fedor Tyutin and Alexei Emelin?
Why? Because the KHL and Russian hockey hoped to use the world's biggest hockey games as a propaganda tool for the Russian professional league that vies to rival the NHL. Well, that was a complete and utter disaster.
• Which leads you to also finger the coach, known as "Coach Bil." His bizarre decisions, including having Malkin on a second-unit power play that featured the likes of Nikolai Kulemin, well, that just made no sense. Not to mention limiting young NHL stars such as Valeri Nichushkin and Vladimir Tarasenko to fourth-line minutes. The coach's decision to start Semyon Varlamov in the quarterfinals over Sergei Bobrovsky was also a head-scratcher given that the reigning Vezina Trophy winner from Columbus had just shut out Norway the previous night.
By the time Varlamov was yanked three Finland goals later, it was clear what a blunder that had been.
• And finally, you can't discount the pressure this team was under. A Norway player after Tuesday's game told us the Russians looked tight and appeared as though the last place they wanted to be was on the ice that night. Once they lost that game to Team USA on Saturday, a thriller of an affair, it's as if the weight of the host nation became unbearable for the Russian team to support. It gives you even more appreciation for the way Team Canada responded under similar conditions four years ago with an equally crazed hockey nation demanding nothing short of gold.
The Russians appeared to suffocate under the weight of it all.
Although not everyone.
One player on this roster nobody can reproach was the captain. Playing with a suspected injured knee, Pavel Datsyuk was easily the best player on his squad in this tournament, tying for the team scoring lead with six points (2-4) and a force on every shift. His linemates, KHL stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, also had strong tournaments.
"Inside I feel absolutely empty," Datsyuk said through an interpreter.
"Disappointed we lost with home advantage and we can't score today. Hard to win if you're not scoring."
Both on and off the ice, Datsyuk made Russia proud, and that shouldn't be forgotten in the rubble of this collapse.
And leave it to another classy veteran to put it in perspective. Finnish legend Selanne openly felt bad for the host team's nightmare end.
"I feel sorry for Ovi and the rest of the Russians because they had a dream to win the gold medal here in front of the home crowd," said Selanne, who scored what proved to be the game winner in the opening period.
"But in hockey, you never know. That's why it's so exciting because you never know what's going to happen. Tonight was a good example of that."