SOCHI, Russia — The journey from the slab of ice where Alex Ovechkin stood as the final buzzer sounded to the sanctuary of Team Russia’s locker room Wednesday evening took him maybe 10 minutes to complete. There were his Finnish opponents to congratulate in the handshake line, an arena full of dejected, whistling fans to acknowledge with an obligatory wave of his stick, a line of teammates to fall in behind as they exited the ice through a tunnel. At some point, in one language or another, all of them were wondering:
And then, in the bowels of the arena, with the wound from Russia’s 3-1 loss still raw and throbbing, came the maze of the “mixed zone” — a series of barricaded pens where the media had gathered to pose that very question to the red-helmeted line of Russian players. Ovechkin, lurching forward awkwardly on his skates, was one of the few to bother stopping.
“I don’t know,” he said softly, in English, into one television reporter’s microphone, averting his eyes from both interviewer and camera. “That’s a big question.”
There are Dutch speedskaters and German lugers and American ice dancers — and athletes from all over the world — who came to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics to fulfill their gold-medal missions and succeeded brilliantly. Perhaps Finland’s hockey team, with puck-eating goalie Tuukka Rask leading the way, will do the same.
And then there are the members of the Russian hockey team — national treasures, Olympic Park rock stars, the beloved Sons of the Red Machine, whose shoulders bore unsurpassed expectations and pressure at these Games and who failed in spectacular fashion. They came here with the understanding that anything less than gold would be unsatisfactory, and they fell two games short of even competing for it.
None of the Russian players who lost Wednesday’s quarterfinal game to Finland were more important, more beloved or under more pressure than Ovechkin, the undisputed top goal scorer on the planet and the unofficial face of the Sochi Games — smiling and gap-toothed, on soda machines and billboards. If all you knew of Russia’s performance here was that Ovechkin scored one goal in Russia’s five games — and none since his first shift of the tournament — you would have all the information you needed.
“It’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score, especially with the players who usually score for their [professional] teams,” Russian Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said through an interpreter in a postgame news conference. “Especially Alexander Ovechkin, who has scored about 40 goals. I cannot explain it so far.”
Bilyaletdinov — himself a former defenseman from the Soviet glory days — will have ample opportunity to formulate an explanation because he will be asked about his team’s failure again Thursday as all the players fly out of Sochi, and he will be asked next week, and he likely will be asked years from now.
He will be asked how a team with so many gifted offensive players had so much trouble putting the puck in the net. He will be asked how a roster of countrymen could have so little chemistry and flow. He will be asked how a Finland team missing its three top centers because of injury could outplay his Russian players for 60 minutes, with so much riding on the outcome.
But by singling out Ovechkin unprompted, Bilyaletdinov merely gave official confirmation to something that was widely assumed in the media and among the fans: These were Ovechkin’s Olympics, this was Ovechkin’s moment and whatever result would come, good or bad, would fall on him.
“We try. We fight. We play until the end,” Ovechkin said after a giant sigh. “We lost.”
Wednesday brought the Russians’ worst performance of the tournament: turnovers in the neutral zone, few real scoring opportunities for their top scorers, a couple of soft goals past Semyon Varlamov that prompted Bilyaletdinov to yank the goalie in the second period (too late, as it turned out).
But to anyone who had been watching the Russians in this tournament, Wednesday’s outcome was simply the final statement of a team that — aside from some inspired play in a 3-2 shootout loss to the United States — never constructed a cohesive unit out of its varied and individually awesome parts.
The Ovechkin-Evgeni Malkin line, which at different points had either Alexander Semin or Alexander Popov as its third part, never produced in a way the players’ lofty reputations would suggest. Ovechkin and Malkin, bitter rivals for the NHL’s Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively, combined for just five points, all of them coming in the first 38 minutes of the tournament. Malkin, for all his playmaking skill, never seemed to put the puck on Ovechkin’s stick at the right times or in the right places.
“With all the skill they had,” Finland center Olli Jokinen said, in a telling comment about what sunk the Russians, “a lot of times they were trying to go one against four.”
On the power play, where Russia played him mostly at the point, Ovechkin seemed uncomfortable and less inclined to load up and fire. He led Russia with 24 shots over its five games, a rate that is close his NHL career norm, but his shooting percentage of 4.1 percent was just a third of 12.3 percent rate he has put up with the Capitals..
“It sucks. What can I say?” Ovechkin said at his second stop, with a group of wire-service reporters. “No emotions right now.”
More packs of reporters — Russian, Finnish, American and others — stood between Ovechkin and the players-only doorway that led to the locker room. He didn’t stop again, despite their pleas. He ducked through the door, turned the corner and disappeared.
In a matter of days, if not hours, he would be on a plane back to Washington. He has a quarter of an NHL season still to play and possibly a long run in the playoffs.
But this tournament meant at least as much to Ovechkin as any in his life, and by his body language and voice, it was clear this loss would not so easily be put behind him.