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.
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?