Team Russia faces increased pressure in Olympic men’s hockey tournament

February 16, 2014

COLUMN | The volunteers all stopped what they were doing. The game-operations people — in charge of the clock and the scoreboard among 1,000 other details — left their posts immediately and headed for the first television they could find.

When the U.S. men’s hockey game ended Sunday, media members began walking — and in some cases jogging — purposefully from the Shayba Arena to its bigger, next-door neighbor, the Bolshoy Ice Dome, maybe two minutes by foot away.

Team Russia was on the ropes again, tied 0-0 with so-so Slovakia after overtime. The shootout was coming up.

It is one thing to talk about the palpable sense of dread overwhelming an entire citizenry if its national hockey team falters before the gold medal game. It is quite another to feel it, to be immersed in the confidence of an Olympic host country gradually receding, the fears of not medaling showing through the enlarged pupils glued to TV screens.

When Ilya Kovalchuk finally scored for Russia in the second round of the shootout for the win, pandemonium ensued in front of those televisions.

Da! Da! (Yes! Yes!), a man of maybe 40 yelled. He was not officially a fan; he was a Russian journalist, although in their red-and-white Team Russia jackets it is often hard to tell them apart here.

There is cheering in these press boxes. There is wishing. There is hoping and praying to the gods that their Big Red Machine does not morph into the Broken-Down Lemon.

“We play well, but everybody wants beat Russia at home,” Alex Ovechkin said after Russia finished pool play 2-1 (technically 1-0-1-1, with one shootout victory and one shootout loss.) “Again, it’s Olympic Games. Nobody wants to make mistake.”

The Russians finished fifth in pool play, meaning they will have to play an additional game before they can advance to the quarterfinals. The good news for them is they will play Norway, the 12th seed, on Tuesday. And if they advance, they will not have to face Canada or the United States until the gold medal game next Sunday. The bad news is they’ll have to win three games to get there.

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Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and the guys aren’t merely Adversity’s Children; they’re Adversity’s Poster Children. Team Russia knows no easy way out.

“No pressure, right?” Semyon Varlamov was asked facetiously.

“Of course, lots of pressure,” the former Washington Capitals goalie said after he bailed out his homeland with 27 saves in regulation and another two in the shootout.

Ovi’s old friend and teammate was special against Slovakia. But even Varly’s athleticism and vision could not account for the tightness and sluggishness Team Russia displayed in the first two periods Sunday.

Maybe this is all preordained. Maybe Russia, rather than being one of the clear favorites along with Canada and Team USA, needs to assume underdog status and flirt with early elimination before taking the motherland on the greatest thrill-seeking ride to the glory gold can bring.

Or maybe Ovechkin, when he said, “Again it’s Olympic Games. Nobody want to make mistake,” was channeling something deeper: These players could be feeling the weight of President Vladi­mir Putin and 143 million more citizens, so much so they aren’t playing their game anymore.

Either way, six to eight of the best 15 players in the world toying with the undying faith of the Russian people is like watching some deviant child pull the wings off a butterfly.

Now, the flip side: This bodes incredibly well for Team USA, which probably contributed to Russia’s hangover against Slovakia by beating the Russians, 3-2, after eight shootout rounds Saturday.

The Americans (3-0, technically 2-0-1-0) were money Sunday. Phil Kessel had a hat trick. Ryan Miller had a shutout until less than 18 seconds remained in a 5-1 win over Slovenia. Team USA finished at the top of its group and gets the No. 2 seed, ensuring it doesn’t have to play until the quarterfinals, when it will face the winner of the Slovakia-Czech Republic game.

T.J. Oshie scored four times in the shootout and got the winner in the eighth round, leading the United States past Russia 3-2 Saturday in the thrilling revival of an Olympic hockey rivalry. (Associated Press)

Unlike the Russians, though, the Americans have neither the pressure nor the great expectations of the home team. In some ways, they are playing with house money.

The kind of pressure on Team Russia makes it even stranger as to why Russian Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov would not use Ovechkin, the preeminent goal scorer in hockey, in a shootout situation in two straight games. In 10 straight opportunities, No. 8 has yet to climb over the boards and take a turn.

If it’s not outright embarrassing the ambassador of the Olympics, it’s at least hedging your confidence in the player who is more raring to shoot the puck than any human on this earth.

Yes, we’re in the tank for Ovechkin in this space — especially these two weeks.

“It’s totally Coach’s decision,” Ovi said Sunday night. “I’m not going to say put me out there. If I have chance, I will.”

There is no great shame in not winning the gold medal, no matter how many millions here would be crestfallen. But there is shame in not being the shoot-first-and-ask-questions later squad that at some point became the Russian players’ international calling card. Unless the Russians begin flowing up ice with the puck on their sticks and the goal in their sights, there will be no Bolshoy bedlam Sunday.

Unleash all those offensive weapons. Unleash the fury of the most potent scoring team in modern hockey. Unleash . . . the inner Ovi.

After another pulsating finish, it’s clear a nation’s heart can no longer take anything else.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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