19 April, 2014


Russian Hockey Meets Its Waterloo

Two figures loom large in Russia’s spectacular fail in the Olympic quarterfinals last night: goaltender Evgeni Nabakov and head coach Vyacheslav Bykov. Nabakov’s wholly ineffectual performance reminded of Semyon Varlamov’s in game 7 against Pittsburgh last spring. It happens to even the most talented of netminders. Obviously you just don’t want it happening in the biggest of hockey games.

When the Russians stemmed the Canadian tsunami a bit at 3-1 deep in the first period, they needed a fortified Nabakov to get them to the first intermission without any further damage done, with some semblance of viability going into period two. Instead, he allowed a softie to Brendan Morrow, which re-established Canada’s three-goal bulge and broke open the floodgates. The San Jose Sharks of course are pinning their Stanley Cup hopes on Nabakov. Hmm.

Bykov for his part offered up one of the worst coaching performances Olympic hockey has ever seen. Has ever a coach done less with more? His players were entirely unready for play when the puck dropped. Bykov made no adjustments until it was way, way too late. And his handling of his goaltenders bordered on the criminal. At 4-1 after 20 minutes the game was discouraging from the Russian vantage but not quite damning; and yet Bykov bull-headedly ignored Nabakov’s glaring unsteadiness, and stuck with him. In allowing him to surrender two more goals early in the second frame he castrated his team’s chances thereafter.

Mike Babcock made plain his intention to match the Ovechkin-Malkin-Semin line for Russia with Mike Richards, Jonathon Toews, and Rick Nash, and despite having the game’s last change, Bykov did nothing to liberate his top line from the effective checking of Canada’s fourth line. OFB has a better chance of skating the first line for the Americans in Sochi than does Bykov of being behind the bench for Russia then.

Greg Wyshynski called it “one of the most definitive, declarative and emphatic emasculations the sport has seen in decades.” If anything, he understated it. It was remarkable to behold how individualistic the Russians looked while reel after reel of footage from their highly unified, five-man-unit USSR predecessors rolled across the NBC cameras in between games during these Games. They were savagely out-hit from the outset, and subsequently intimidated. The Canadians created the space they needed with their physicality. Canada imposed its will on the vaunted Russians. Russia was badly exposed in this big game, the disproportionate offensive brilliance of their player development no match for Canada’s magnificent balance.

Where and how do the Russians find a back-end over the next four years? Where are the hopes for improvement for the Russian blueline over the next four years? Gonchar obviously will be gone. Andrei Markov is 31. Who looms as an under-25 stud riser back there? We’ve all focused on Alexander Ovechkin’s pride in representing his country in Sochi, but after assessing his team’s performance last night, and crystal-balling its prospects going forward — especially on the back end — he may opt for an island vacation instead in four years’ time.

Another mind-boggling bit of Russian mis-management: the hubris with which they relied on KHLers. The Russians brought nine of them to these Olympic games. The decision proved catastrophic. So sayeth puck daddy:

“The non-NHL players were pathetic. The Russians have nine players on their roster from their native Kontinental Hockey League. [They] were a combined minus-9 with two points, getting outclassed and outcompeted by their counterparts in every zone. They were warm bodies, background players to Canada’s stars.”

More fail: the “veteran” experiments with Sergei Fedorov and most especially Viktor Kozlov.

Russia seemed to have learned nothing from the United States’ effort just days earlier playing against Canada on their home ice. The Americans came out hell-bent on demonstrating their refusal to be intimidated by the bigger Canucks, and scoring early aided their cause. Russia on Wednesday night skated with a deer-in-headlights look it never lost.

photo by Getty images

When it mattered least, Russians showed courage and gumption. With mere minutes left in the blowout Alexander Semin threw a clean but devastating end-boards check on Dan Boyle. The time to do that was two hours earlier. But then Boyle responded as seemingly all too many of this generation’s hockey players do: he couldn’t absorb a clean hit the way our sport’s honorable players did for generations, and get his revenge as the sport’s ethos demands (later, cleanly), and so he went punk on Semin. Boyle should be suspended for his attack, but I’m not holding my breath. The NHL hasn’t addressed this matter, and I have no expectation of the IOC doing so either. This is a real black mark on our game today.

For Capitals’ fans, the outcome was hardly awful news. Two hard-worked stars had their Olympic experience cut short and now can return to Washington relatively unscathed. They won’t enjoy the action-less days ahead, but it’s in their best interest and their team’s best interest with that other prize in mind. Semyon Varlamov, too, avoided injury and can resume efforts to reclaim the Capitals’ cage.

And Nicklas Backstrom’s Swedish team fell late last night, too.

A week ago who would have imagined that the Olympic hockey’s championship weekend would have Ovi, Semin and Backstrom out but Milan Jurcina still in?



16 Comments

  1. Ray in Bowie wrote:

    Russians played no defense and seemed incapable of recognizing the >30 years old “stand them up at the blue line” Canadian defensive strategy. Dump & chase is boring but it beats “blue-line turnovers and turn around and chase until the red light comes on”.
    Also, somebody should have decapitated Boyle after his stunt but the KHL players were p***ies so no hope there, and there might have been a riot if Russia had retaliated.
    The NHL-size rink obviously helps Can & USA; Euros like the space and low-contact games.

    25 February, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  2. TG wrote:

    Amazing how Eddie O. called Semin’s hit “late” and “high” and “dirty”. “And look at how Semin tries to skate away!” Uh…you mean trying to get back into the play?

    I’m confident that a similar Pronger hit would have been lauded.

    25 February, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  3. hotdog88gt wrote:

    The Russian team was simply not as good as a team full of NHLers, Canada’s best. This was not the USSR vs. Canada.

    25 February, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  4. Ted wrote:

    Russia has great players but they didn;t have a great team.

    Outside of Gonchar and Volchenkov, who did Russia have on defense.

    Canadian NHLers were superior to Russian KHLers. The Canadian NHLers and Russian NHLers both cancelled each other out but Canada was far better organized than Russia.

    25 February, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  5. Steven R. wrote:

    Don’t forget about Flash, looks like he’ll be back at Kettler soon, too. I guess none of the Caps’ Olympians will get bragging rights over each other.

    As bad as Nabakov was, I thought the D left him out to dry. Normally I have trouble picking out which D-men play well or poorly, but there were way too many Canadians first in the zone with the puck getting to the crease.

    25 February, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  6. Jimmy wrote:

    Finally an article worth reading.

    This was a team of finesse players & when you play Canada, it doesn’t match up well.

    & to blame Nabakov, NO!! Look at those first 4 goals, no support from the team. They left him high & dry.

    too individualistic after they got behind.

    You have last change & you don’t try to avoid the match-up with Can. 4th line. How many big games has this guy from Russia coached?

    25 February, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  7. Hittman wrote:

    The Semin hit was clean, and to borrow a line from Pete Rose, “I didn’t know it turned into girls softball between 3rd and home (just after he ran the catcher in an all-star game).” I’m with Pete on that one: Boyle has a history of being a poor sport when it comes to getting hit. And let’s face it: if Semin cleans you out, then imagine what a physical player would have done…Olczyk’s comment as well as JR’s and Milbury’s reek of xenophobic BS. There’s no other explanation.

    25 February, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  8. So who thinks the USSR’s 1980 decision to pull Tretiak influenced Bykov? ‘Cause that’s about the only reason, stretch though it may be, that I can see for starting the 2nd period with Nabby still in net. It is otherwise inexplicable.

    Yes, the D was sieve-like, but what happened right after the goalie switch? Russia got a spark, scored, and played with energy (if only for a bit). If they’d done that at 4-1 instead of 6-1, the game might at least have been entertaining.

    25 February, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  9. Angie wrote:

    Bykov made some statements about the NHL players ‘style’ Ovie in particular. He said that they waste energy and risk energy going around hitting and finishing checks. I wonder if he coached the team that they shouldn’t hit? It was a sad site to witness and I hope that the defeat(s) doesn’t carry over into Capitals business!

    25 February, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Stan wrote:

    No defense for Boyle’s slewfoot retaliation against Semin. But at least get your facts straight: the Semin hit on Boyle may have been “devastating” but it was officially deemed not “clean”: he drew a penalty on the play (next time, check the boxscore before you write).

    While your general argument against retaliatory mayhem has merit, how would you suggest players respond to illegal (see above) and dangerous hits like the one Semin leveled on Boyle?

    25 February, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  11. Sherrie Van Houten wrote:

    OrderedChaos–right on line with what I thought. Because if that WASN’T the reason, punishment up to and including a firing squad should be in his future…..as a coach, you have to put your players in the best position to win. Bykov let his team down big-time.

    25 February, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Permalink
  12. The OFB Team wrote:

    Boyle admitted in a post-game interview that the hit by Semin was clean.

    25 February, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink
  13. Stan,

    Boyle’s interpretation of the hit carries far more weight with me than your pussified one. Grow a pair, will you?

    25 February, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Permalink
  14. Sonja wrote:

    That hit on Boyle was clean … watch the re-run tapes. And for a moment let’s imagine that it wasn’t, that does not justify the slew-foot move. As my mother used to tell my brothers and I (and mothers for centuries have told their offspring) two wrongs don’t make a right. The truly grievous act about that whole drama was how quickly the penalty was called on Semin, and how long it took the refs to make up their minds about Boyle. Once the penalty was determined for Semin, Boyle’s should have been a no-brainer.

    What I’ve been wondering about the whole travesty is how much it hurt the Russian team that their best players are now over here for 10/12 of the year. And when they are in Russia, they are vacationing; not available for TeamRussia practices, etc. History shows that change does not come easily and is not welcomed to those from Russia. Changing their system will be a difficult pill to swallow.

    26 February, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  15. VanZabDan wrote:

    Enjoyed the article. My one clarification would be that Semin was actually the one Russian that hit throughout the game. That of course stood out for me as it isn’t what I’m accustomed to see having watched him for the last 6-7 years. Good on him for playing hard from the start to the finish and I hope it continues in Washington.

    BTW, Stan, even Milbury said the hit was clean but that at that point in the game Boyle was justified to retaliate. Doesn’t pass the common sense test but that is what he said.

    26 February, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  16. garbage_goal wrote:

    My 2 cents on Nabokov, who I see a lot of because I live in San Jose: he’s very much a goaltender who thrives on structured hockey. He’s excellent at reading the play, getting in the right position, and anticipating follow-ups etc. But when it gets too scrambly, that’s just not his thing.

    And things were scrambly, to say the least. Other goaltenders thrive in situations like that (like, let’s say Theodore). Nabby’s not that great when the rubber is coming from all angles, again and again.

    By the time he gave up his last goal – caught waaaaay out of the paint – he’d just lost his game completely, and I find it hard to blame him.

    27 February, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Permalink