Russia’s hockey stars, and their followers, go quietly in loss to Finland

Russia’s hockey stars, and their followers, go quietly in loss to Finland

SOCHI, Russia – The game ended, and there was … nothing.

No boos. No jeers.

Outside in the Olympic Park, the thousands watching on the big screens near the roaring flame dispersed quietly as soon as the score was final: Finland 3, Russia 1.

Inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the fans stood in silence as star Evgeni Malkin rested on one knee and stared into space. They cheered mildly as captain Pavel Datsyuk gathered his teammates at center ice to raise their sticks in acknowledgment. As the players trudged down the tunnel, the fans trudged up the stairs.

“It sucks,” said star Alex Ovechkin. “What I say?”

What could anyone say?

“There is nothing to say,” said fan Aleksei Sokolov, wearing a Team Russia jacket a few rows off the ice. “It’s sad.”

This is the first Winter Olympics on Russian soil, and men’s hockey is the centerpiece event. Of all the medals the Russians wanted to win at Vladimir Putin’s $51 billion Games, this was the one they wanted most. They haven’t won a best-on-best tournament since the Soviets won the 1981 Canada Cup. Not only won’t they get a shot at gold now, they won’t even get a shot at bronze.

The Russians were eliminated in the quarterfinals Wednesday, and their other memorable moment was a 3-2 loss to the United States in the prelims, when Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk couldn’t beat T.J. Oshie at the end of an eight-round shootout.

They scored only eight goals in five games even though they had Ovechkin and Malkin – two NHL MVPs. Ovechkin’s face is all over these Games in Coca-Cola ads – have a Coke and a gap-toothed smile! – and the Russian flag was on his skates. But he and Malkin each scored against Slovenia in the first four minutes of the first prelim, and that was it.

“We’ve been waiting so long for this, and I thought it would be better,” said fan Vladislav Brechko, wearing his red Russian national team sweater in the stands. “This was … bad.”

If the translation is correct, a Russian reporter asked coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov if this was a “catastrophe.” Bilyaletdinov called it “unsuccessful.” The reporter pressed. The coach said: “Let’s not play word games. You can call it whatever.” You could write a Russian novel, but you really need only a few words. You could hear the players’ broken spirit in broken English.

“I got empty inside,” said goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

“Hard to win,” said Datsyuk, “if you not score.”

The Russians actually scored first Wednesday. Kovalchuk one-timed a feed from Datsyuk on the power play 7:51 into the game. As the arena nearly burst with noise, Kovalchuk went crazy. He raised one knee. He crouched down. He jumped high into the air with two feet, despite a balky ankle.

But the Russians coughed up a goal just 1:27 later, when forward Juhamatti Aaltonen drove to the net off the left wing, went around defenseman Nikita Nikitin and fired the puck into the gut of goaltender Semyon Varlamov. It might as well have been a kick in the gut. The puck rolled across Varlamov’s belly and leaked between his torso and his left arm.

Tie game. Tension.

Music played. Cheerleaders danced. Mascots bobbed their oversized heads. The fans just sat there, only a few waving their Russian flags.

Then Teemu Selanne made it 2-1 later in the first. Then Mikael Granlund made it 3-1 in the second on the power play. Bilyaletdinov replaced Varlamov, benched his fourth line and gave more ice time to his stars, but it didn’t matter. The Finns defended. They blocked shots. While some fans mobbed Ville Haapasalo – a Finnish actor famous in Russia, rooting for his native country – others fretted.

The Finns had the Russians right where they wanted them. With the lead, the Finns could play their solid defensive system – keeping three or four men between the puck and the net, clogging the middle, collapsing in the slot. Frustrated, the Russians played like individuals trying to do too much, not as a team. “With the skill they have, a lot of times they were trying to go one against four,” said Finnish center Olli Jokinen.

The end was almost hard to watch. The Russians kept throwing desperate stretch passes up the ice – and kept coming back into their end for faceoffs because of icings. They couldn’t pull their goalie fast enough because of it. “I think they were a little bit tired,” Jokinen said. “They didn’t really have an answer how to break our trap. They were just trying to make that home-run pass. But we were able to stick with the plan.”

And then it was over, and the questions began.

“I’m not surprised,” said fan Igor Demitov, wearing a Dynamo Moscow sweater. “I think the coach of Russia have a bad strategy. I think we have very bad choice for coach. It’s a very big problem. We have very good forward and not so good defensemen. If we want gold …”

“Stupid coach!” yelled a fan as he passed by.

“Yeah, stupid coach,” Demitov said, more matter of fact than angry. “We have Malkin, Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, the best. We have bad strategy. All defense, defense, defense, defense.”

Russian reporters grilled Bilyaletdinov. Why couldn’t the Russians score? Why didn’t he put Ovechkin and Malkin on separate lines when they weren’t producing together? Was the pressure too much? Did they want it too badly? Did he expect to be fired? Bilyaletdinov had few answers. “I can only say words of apology,” he said.

This should not ruin the Olympics for Russia. The coaches and players on this team were like the carpenters and the landscapers in Sochi – they didn’t finish the job, didn’t live up to high expectations – but the Olympics are bigger than any one sport, even hockey, just as they are bigger than little flaws.

“The success for Russia is certain,” Bilyaletdinov said. “We are hosting the Olympic Games. I think these are one of the best Games that I’ve ever seen. All of the conditions that have been created for the athletes – for the contests and competitions, for the skaters, a lot of new facilities – certainly signifies success. We have played unsuccessfully. We didn’t show positive results. But for Russia overall, the games are a success.”

That said, this hurts, and there will be repercussions. Bilyaletdinov was asked if he would stay in Sochi and support others.

“No, I’d rather leave,” he said. “I can’t say what’s going to follow.”