SOCHI, Russia – After the win against Norway that paved the way for Russia to play Finland in the quarterfinals the Russians were still questioned, and quite rightfully so, about the lack of production from their top stars.
Yet there was more talk about the other part of the game – defense. The following exchange took place between the Russian media and Russia’s captain Pavel Datsyuk in the mixed zone of the Bolshoy Ice Dome:
Q. You haven’t conceded a goal in 125 minutes of hockey – is the defensive play this perfect?
“I didn’t hear the question at all.”
Q. You haven’t conceded a goal in 125 minutes…
“I absolutely cannot hear your question… Thank you.”
Datsyuk clearly didn’t want to answer this question not to jinx the team. The last goal Russia gave up was the power play tally to Joe Pavelski of the United States with just over 10 minutes left of the third period of the preliminary round game between the two teams. That would make it over 140 minutes of play since the Russians were scored against. And if one considers even strength goals only, we would have to go back even further to the very first game of the Olympics for Russia against Slovenia.
Who would have thought that we would talk about the Russian defense more positively than the Russian offense?
Of course the Russians are not lying to themselves as they faced teams like Slovakia and Norway to whom they didn’t give up a goal – not exactly offensive power houses.
“We played against the Americans, who can play offense.” Alex Ovechkin said after the game against Norway. “And Slovakia and Norway, their offense is not as strong as other teams,’ they only counter. It wasn’t a secret that they were going to be standing, waiting for their chance. But we didn’t give them any chances. Of course there were some mistakes, but it’s impossible not to have them.”
When the Russian roster was announced the coaching staff wanted to have two defensive-minded lines. And while two of the players chosen initially went down with injuries and were substituted, the game plan for coach Bilyaletdinov did not change. Bilyaletdinov, a former defensive great himself, wants to make sure that players think defense first.
“We all know what we came here to do.” Ilya Kovalchuk said. “There is a game plan that coaches have, and we just have to perform.”
The Russians started shifting into a more of a playoff mode against Norway, dressing seven defensemen instead of eight, and switching to a three line only play towards the end of the game.
“A lot of teams play six defensemen.” Andrei Markov said about the change. “Nothing changed for us. We didn’t think that there were seven of us, because we all have to work hard no matter what.”
Of course, the goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky cannot be overlooked, as their stellar play has them both on their toes competing for the next starting job. Asked whether defense wins games in the playoffs, Sergei Bobrovsky unequivocally said yes. “Our defensemen help me out, and I am grateful to all defensemen and forwards, because we all fought and worked together.”
Russia will need a solid performance against Finland on Wednesday, the team that has given them so much trouble on the international stage. The Finns are a bogey team for the Russians, beating them four out of six times the two teams have faced each other in the Olympics. Three of those wins were shutouts for Finland. This will be the real test for the Russian defense, because giving up even one goal could mean the end of the Olympic dream.
“This will be war.” Alex Ovechkin said about the upcoming game. “We’re are ready for this war.”