SOCHI, Russia – Do you believe in debacles?
You did Thursday if you were at the Bolshoy Ice Palace. What began as a rousing return home for the Russian men’s hockey team did not turn into a rout, not right away, anyway. Before the Russians broke open a 5-2 victory in the third period of their first prelim game, they struggled through an uh-oh, one-goal stick-squeezer.
And they did it against Slovenia, a small country with one NHL player making its Olympic debut.
“Tension,” said Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk. “Warning.”
There is a boom-or-bust quality about the Russians. They are capable of skilled hockey and sloppy hockey. The pressure of playing at home could bring out their best or crush them into disappointment. We saw hints of both in the same game, and if that can happen against Slovenia, what about, say, the United States on Saturday?
“I’m pretty sure everybody was a little bit nervous – crazy crowd, unbelievable atmosphere out there,” said Russian winger Alex Ovechkin. “When you play home, it’s always give you a little bit …”
Ovechkin fumbled for the right word in English. He was asked if they were tight.
“Yeah,” he said.
Understand the background: The Soviets used to keep their stars at home and unleash them against amateurs in the Olympics. They dominated to such a degree that when the Americans upset them in 1980, it became known as the “Miracle on Ice.” The Russians are sick of North Americans talking about Lake Placid and ignoring the rest of the Soviet era, and they are sick of how they have fallen short in recent history. They haven’t won Olympic gold since the Unified Team did in 1992, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the NHL era, they have won silver in 1998, bronze in 2002. That’s it.
Now they’re home for Vladimir Putin’s $51 billion Sochi Games, with their people yearning for the glory days and hoping for a brighter future.
The Russians have 16 NHL players and nine KHL players. But there was virtually no NHL presence in the stands Thursday – no Datsyuk Detroit Red Wings sweaters, no Ovechkin Washington Captials sweaters or anything else. Instead, there were a few KHL sweaters and a lot of Russian national team sweaters. There were even some old-school red CCCP sweaters, as if No. 17 Valeri Kharlamov could still hop over the boards.
There was an old Soviet Navy flag in the crowd with a red star and the hammer and sickle. There were Russian flags everywhere, waving on poles, hanging on rails and ledges, with names of cities written or printed on the white, blue and red. Tver. Samara. Krasnoyarsk. Yekaterinaburg. Chelyabinsk. The places that make up a large, proud country.
“RUSS-EE-YA!” the fans chanted. “RUSS-EE-YA!”
The Sochi Olympics meant so much to Ovechkin that he had threatened to come even if the NHL didn’t, and he roared down the left wing on a 2-on-1 and fired a missile into the upper right corner of the net just 1:17 into the first period. As he crashed into the end boards, the noise … well, you had to hear it. Evgeni Malkin, another NHL MVP, scored on a breakaway at 3:54. Another primal roar. This was the plan.
The Russians have a stunning top six: Datsyuk centering Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Radulov, two stars who shunned the NHL for the KHL; Ovechkin on the left with Malkin and Alex Semin. Their first power play unit: Kovalchuk, Datsyuk and Radulov up front, with Ovechkin and Andrei Markov on the points. Malkin is on the second power-play unit. Malkin.
“I think we were a little bit in awe at that start,” said Anze Kopitar, Slovenia’s only NHL player. “Guys like Malkin and Ovechkin can make you pay pretty quick.”
But even when the Russians were passing the puck all over the place, they looked like they were playing shinny. They had no structure. Their KHL guys hadn’t played since Jan. 27, and their NHL guys had come halfway around the world.
And when Slovenia’s Ziga Jeglic scored early in the second, they stopped skating the same way. They gave up more chances than they generated. Though Kovalchuk gave them a 3-1 lead late in the second on the power play, Jeglic – a 26-year-old who had only two goals in 32 games in Finland this season before going to Germany – scored his second of the game less than two minutes later.
The Russians are vulnerable on the back end, and they’re vulnerable when they don’t play together. They’re vulnerable when they play tight.
Valeri Nichushkin bulled his way to the net early in the third, the puck slipped in as he bumped the goaltender, and no interference was called. It was 4-2. The fans’ volume was ear-splitting as the referee explained the decision to the Slovenian bench.
The Russians loosened up, and Anton Belov soon made it 5-2. Slovenian goaltender Robert Kristan lay flat on his stomach, his face down on the ice. There would be no minor miracle.
But there could be a major debacle if the Russians do that in the medal round. Datsyuk was right. There was tension, and it was a warning.
“We just feel like we can’t play like that,” Ovechkin said. “We can’t make mistakes like that, when we give them the chance to bounce back and feel the game easily. We’re going to watch the video. We’re going to talk in the locker room between us. We’re going to make changes.”
Do you believe in Russia?