Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
By Michael Rosenberg
February 19, 2014

SOCHI, Russia -- In the end, which was disturbingly close to the beginning, Evgeni Malkin leaned over, devastated. But was he devastated enough? Malkin dropped to one knee. He looked at the ice and probably wondered how to crawl under it.

This was a national face-plant: Finland 3, Russia 1, in the hockey quarterfinals. These Russians will not win a hockey medal, which is embarrassing to the host country but not surprising. The Russians were paper champions from the beginning. They seemed intimidating. They had the biggest stars, the most electrifying players, and they had home ice in a nation that loves hockey as much as any other.  But as we do so often in sports, we confused narrative with analysis.

If you take away Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, this was a thin roster with mediocre defensemen and an overmatched coach. Russia’s speed and skill were evident -- during a first-period Finnish power play, the Russians dominated the puck -- but their defensemen couldn’t generate any offense, and their stars looked like they had never played together.

“With the skill they have, a lot of times they were trying to go one against four,” Finland’s Olli Jokinen said.

Afterward, Russian coach Zinetula “Bil” Bilyaletdinov took questions from an “angry” Russian media. Why didn’t you split Ovechkin and Malkin? How guilty are you feeling?

Will you stay in Sochi for the rest of the Games?

“No, I’d rather leave.”

One reporter asked Bilyaletdinov if he planned to coach Russia in the 2018 Games, which was kind of funny, because I’m not sure he coached Russia in the 2014 Games. Another asked if he would consider this a “catastrophe.”

“Let’s not play word games,” Bilyaletdinov. “I said it was unsuccessful. You can say it was whatever.”

I’m sure the Russian media has all sorts of creative words. Ovechkin told reporters this “sucks.” Last year, he and Malkin had said that they would rather skip the NHL regular season than miss the Sochi Olympics. Maybe if they had done that, they would have developed some on-ice chemistry together.

Ovechkin and Malkin each scored in the first four minutes of the tournament, but that was against Slovenia. Russia scored nine goals combined against Slovenia and Norway, but only two against the U.S., none against Slovakia until a shootout and one against Finland.

Hockey teams with a few offensive stars and no depth rarely win. This was predictable.

Finnish defenseman Sami Lepisto said that his team’s game plan was simple. “Take away the middle and let their defensemen carry the puck and pass to their forwards. Their forwards want the puck all the time, and I think we succeeded in that. They had to dump the puck, and they got a little frustrated by that every time.”

Jokinen said he thought that the Russians were tired from playing a qualification game. Jokinen certainly wasn’t. As Jokinen talked to reporters in the mixed zone, Datsyuk slid behind him and over to a microphone. Datsyuk faced a barrage of questions about home-ice pressure and crushing disappointment. Datsyuk answered a few, then kept going. Jokinen stuck around and chatted. For all I know, he is still there.

Word games, anybody?

Hat trick. Finland has won three straight Olympic hockey games over Russia.

Favorites. The Russians have not won a hockey medal since picking up bronze in 2002. Why would anybody expect gold here? Is it because the storyline was so good? Goalie Tuuka Rask was simply being honest when he said, “The real measuring stick is Canada and we played a great game against them.”

Teamwork. We’ll leave this one to Jokinen.

“Whoever plays for this team, they do the same thing,” Jokinen said. “We’re big believers that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, where you play … once you put the jerseys on, there is pride. “


(Looks for words.)

Uh, you first.

Washington Capitals. Ovechkin’s NHL team, like the ice, melts every spring. The Caps’ annual playoff disintegration cannot be pinned on Ovi, and neither can this. He is a transcendent player on most nights. But if he is crushed right now, then at least he is used to it.

Catastrophe. Well, that one is harder to define.

The Russians had the third-best roster here, behind Canada and the U.S., and this is one-and-done hockey, which is highly unpredictable. So in a pure hockey sense, this is not even surprising, let alone a catastrophe.

Maybe the fans knew it. The country certainly is desperate for Olympic hockey gold, but truth be told, the Russian stars have played in much louder buildings in the NHL. If you have ever seen Calgary Flames fans at their seats, cheering, 20 minutes before the puck drops in a Stanley Cup playoff game, the atmosphere at Bolshoy Ice Dome would have felt minor-league to you.

I don’t know if the fans were nervous, or didn’t take Finland seriously at the start, or don’t normally cheer like North American crowds. But the cumulative effect was that the Russians had the immense pressure of winning at home without a boisterous crowd on their side.

Bilyaletdinov was asked if these Olympics could be a success for Russia when the hockey team did so poorly? He finessed his way out of it -- no coach in Russia is dumb enough to call these Games a failure. But the question was more interesting than the answer, because in a way, the hockey team and the Games themselves are intertwined.

The Sochi Olympics are a carefully orchestrated attempt for Vladimir Putin to showcase the new Russia: a land of prosperity and power. That is Putin’s narrative. Here is the analysis: Thanks to these Olympics, more foreigners than ever know about Putin’s corruption, suppression of free speech and oppression of homosexuals.

Finland 3, Russia 1 was not a referendum on a nation’s social progress. It was a hockey game, nothing more. But the hockey team was supposed to be the symbol of Putin’s Russia, more likable than its Cold War predecessors but just as frightening.  These Olympics have exposed the flaws in a regime and a team. The Russian squad had gold-medal names but lost in the quarterfinals. Paper champions, up in flames.

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