An Olympic team that was described by most hockey experts as the most skilled at the tournament is not even going to play in the medal games. For Team Russia, the Olympic journey ended much earlier than anticipated and in a way that no one predicted.
The final score of last night's epic game between Russia and Canada - Russia game is now known throughout the hockey world, as Canada defeated Russia 7:3. An hour or so after the game one of the Russian players came out from the locker room and looked at the empty arena with dispair on his face, as if wanting to wake up from what he was hoping was a bad dream, a feeling that was shared by millions of Russians back home. So what did go wrong in this tournament for the team that had such potential? And who should be blamed for a failure of such proportions?
1. Coach Slava Bykov and His Staff. The Olympic Games in Vancouver were the first for Bykov as a head coach for Team Russia, as he took over for Vladimir Krikunov that was fired after failing to win a medal in Torino in 2006. Was he experienced enough for such a role? Not only that, but Bykov is a head coach for KHL club Salavat Yulaev, who dedicated most of his time coaching that club, and not making regular trips to the NHL, as he should have. Russia's GM Tretiak stated that it was Bykov who picked the team. If that was the case, how could he do that without regularly watching his top stars in action? Ron Wilson and Mike Babcock are also busy with their clubs, but first, they did not pick the rosters for their team - Brian Burke and Steve Yzerman did. But even if they had a say on who to take and who to omit - they saw these players compete against the Leafs and the Red Wings on a regular basis. Bykov did not. To give one example - could it be that Volchenkov was not used in the role he was supposed to be used because Bykov simply did not know him enough? Is that acceptable that the most physical defenseman on the roster only spent 15 minutes on the ice against Canada?
2. Coaching Choices Made During the Games. While much has been written about how Bykov represents a new style of Russian coaching, and how he understands Russian NHL players having played abroad himself, it was obvious as early as in the game against Slovakia that he was still using the old Soviet tactics, such as rolling all four lines equally, or using four pairs of defensemen, or long shifts for his lines, or not having special teams for power play and penalty kill opportunities. While these strategies may worked against inferior opponents, such as Latvia or Czech Republic, they fell apart against 100% NHL squad of Canada.
3. Performance of Russia's Top Players. Just about all the writers today will write about how Nabokov and Ovechkin, arguably two most important players on the Russian roster, were ineffective (or even pathetic) against Canada. Yet these two were not the only ones missing in action in this game. Let's see.. Where was Ilya Kovalchuk during this whole tournament? Was he even on the squad or was he still back in New Jersey negotiating his contract extension? How about Pavel Datsyuk? What has he done besides winning a face off here and there or occasiionally throwing his body around? It's nice for Sergei Gonchar to score a power play goal against Canada, but what was he doing in the three previous games? Where was Captain Alexei Morozov? Besides Radulov, I can't name a single KHL player that stood out.
4. Defensive Breakdown against Canada. While Russia's defense did not look terrible in the group stage games, Mike Babcock found a way to expose all the Russian defensive weaknesses that so much has been written about going into the tournament. All Canadians had to do was pressure the puck, and play ultra physical game to start the game, and as three of us expected, first goal made the biggest difference. Russia had no answer for this kind of hockey, and before they realized that the game started, Canada was leading by five goals (the score was 6:1 just 24 minutes into the game!). As Nabokov said in a post game interview, "we were shocked by the wave of their attacks".
5. Lack of Spectacular Goaltending. When it mattered most, Russian goaltenders did not deliver the kind of games that we have seen them deliever for the Coyotes and the Sharks this season. First, Bryzgalov. When Russia couldn't score more than one goal against Slovakia, he allowed his opponent to tie the game and beat him in shoot out competition. Second, Nabokov. Not that he should be blamed for all goals, but he allowed too many too fast against Canada, and a few of those a goaltender of his caliber should not have allowed to go past him. In his post game interview following the loss to Canada, Nabby was asked if this was the worst career game of his life. He thought about it for a moment, and said that yes, most likely it was. He could not even remember a single instance when he allowed six goals in one game.
This is how the journey ended for Team Russia. The Russian Hockey Federation has some tough choices to make in the next few months, as they evaluate the past and plan ahead for the Olympic games in Sochi, Russia in 2014, where the pressure on Team Russia will be enourmous. The Olympic rivalry between Canada and Russia will resume in four years on Russian soil, but until then, the pain and the memory of this collapse will linger on the minds and in the hearts of Russian people. As Canadians already know, four years is a long time to think about one loss.