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Analysis: Lack of adjustments dooms Russia

by Dan Rosen

SOCHI -- The Russia players raised their sticks to the crowd and skated away, right out of their Olympics, away from a path paved with dejection and disillusionment.

The country's men's hockey team was the de facto host of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the darlings, the welcoming committee here on the coast of the Black Sea. The entire team gathered for a press conference last week in front of nearly 500 people and told the world about the tournament it felt it should, and would, win.

They were wrong. So wrong.

Instead these Russians were everything their harshest critics believed and rarely met the expectations they harbored for themselves.

The Olympics are no more for them because they scored 12 goals in five games, went 3-for-19 on the power play and were knocked out by Finland 3-1 in a quarterfinal-round game Wednesday. It was a fitting culmination for how the Russians played during the past seven days at Bolshoy Ice Dome.

"It sucks," Alex Ovechkin said. "That's all I can say."

Finland capitalized on its chances where Russia couldn't. Finland didn't blink when Russia took a 1-0 lead 7:51 into the first period, tying the game 87 seconds later when Finnish league forward Juhamatti Aaltonen, a Kontinental Hockey League castoff, undressed defenseman Nikita Nikitin along the goal line and beat Semyon Varlamov with a tough-angle shot.

The Finns kept pushing when the time was right, pressuring when they knew it would work and sitting back the rest of the time. They knew the Russians were playing their fourth game in five days so they wanted to make them skate and waste effort.

Five days after he became the oldest player to score a goal in the Olympics, Teemu Selanne set the record again 2:22 before the first intermission, a backbreaking goal which gave Finland a 2-1 lead.

Mikael Granlund, who was brilliant Wednesday, scored 5:37 into the second period. The Finns had the Russians exactly where they wanted them.

Sure, goaltender Tuukka Rask had to come up with some 10-bell saves because that's what happens when you're facing a team with Russia's skill. The Russians made their push in the final 10 minutes of the second period after coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov put Sergei Bobrovsky in for an ineffective and shell-shocked Varlamov.

Rask had the answer every time. The third period arrived and the Russians couldn't find the cure for their ills. They couldn’t even get the puck out of their own end to get Bobrovsky off the ice for the extra skater as the clock bled down from four minutes to three minutes to two minutes remaining.

Russia tried to hit the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass out of its end multiple times late in the game and instead wound up icing the puck. That ineffectiveness kept Bobrovsky in the net until there were 90 seconds remaining. The Russians would have preferred to pull the goalie with two or more minutes remaining.

"I understood the responsibility, my responsibility, how important that it was, and I tried to do my work professionally, to do what was needed to be done," Bilyaletdinov said. "I failed to do something."

Russia just never put it all together here. Maybe the pressure, the weight of expectations, got to the Russians. But their play was identifiable with only one word: average.

What was supposed to be the most dangerous power play in the Olympics wasn't even average. Despite having an envious array of superstars on the first power-play unit, including Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Andrei Markov -- a quartet with 411 career power-play goals in the NHL -- Russia clicked at a paltry 15.8 percent with the man-advantage. Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin were on the second unit.

Worse yet the Russians at times appeared lost on the man-advantage, moving the puck into areas that posed little threat to their opponents, giving the puck up when they didn't have to.

Bilyaletdinov tinkered with the power-play units in practice when it was obvious they weren't working, but he never went to his new units during a game.

At even strength Bilyaletdinov was too stubborn to recognize that Malkin and Ovechkin just weren't working together. He kept them on the same line and changed the right wing from Semin to Alexander Popov, who was invisible against Finland. He finally tried to change things up in the first period against Finland but it was too late.

Ovechkin and Malkin combined for two goals within the first 3:54 of Russia's tournament-opener against Slovenia. Neither scored again during the final 306:06 the Russians played.

"It's difficult to explain why we didn't score," Bilyaletdinov said. "The players who usually score a lot on their teams, especially Alexander Ovechkin, who scores over 40 goals -- I cannot explain."

Bilyaletdinov tried to rely on four lines through most of the tournament. It was a mistake because Russia isn't deep enough to roll four lines in a best-on-best tournament. He finally cut his forward rotation to three lines midway through the game Wednesday, but in the third period, when the situation was dire, he stayed too reliant on his third line, which produced nothing in the tournament.

Individual play also burdened the Russians, who tried to win a 1-on-1 skill game Wednesday against a team that was playing like a team.

Outside of Datsyuk, none of Russia's top six forwards showed much interest in helping the defensemen get the puck out of the defensive zone, instead choosing to wait for a miracle to happen.

In Russia's defense the team did play four games in five days, but that too is its own fault because it went beyond regulation twice in the preliminary round, in a shootout loss to the United States and a shootout win against a Slovakian team which had lost 10-2 in its first two games.

The Russians will argue they were unlucky against the U.S. when their third goal was taken away because the net was off its right mooring, but all the officials did was follow the International Ice Hockey Federation rulebook.

Unlucky or not, the loss to the Americans isn't the defining moment of this tournament for Russia. There was no defining moment; it was a failure by a team that thought it was better than this.

"I just feel empty," Bobrovsky said.


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