Winter Olympics 2014: After demanding medals, Vladimir Putin looks on as Russia are knocked out of ice hockey tournament
Ice hockey was the most prized medal in Sochi to hosts Russia
Wednesday 19 February 2014
When the clock stopped, what little colour left in Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s face disappeared. The Russia coach looked sheet white as he watched the Finns mob their goalkeeper, gorging themselves on the moment they pulled the rug from beneath Russian feet and left the hosts’ hopes piled in a heap in the middle of the Bolshoy.
Weighed on top of Russia’s stars of the ice were the dashed hopes of a nation. When the home players gathered themselves sufficiently to skate into the middle of the rink and raise their sticks in the traditional farewell they were greeted with whistles and catcalls from the supporters who remained.
“It’s just emptiness,” said Sergei Bobrovsky, the goaltender who had been hurried on to the ice in the wake of Finland’s third goal to replace the hapless and hooked Semyon Varlamov. “I just feel empty inside.”
Bobrovsky did not let another past him but at the other end Russia’s much vaunted attack was denied by his opposite number, Tuukka Rask, again and again and again. The Finnish goaltender made 37 saves and that is why his team-mates made for him at their happy ending end.
A quarter-final exit, losing 3-1 at the hands of their tiny but noisy neighbours, was not in Vladimir Putin’s script. He did not oversee the spending of $51bn (£30bn) to bring the Winter Games to his favourite holiday spot for Alexander Ovechkin and co to let him down. Bilyaletdinov has been here before; he was playing when the Soviets were shocked in the Miracle on Ice in 1980. But this was more embarrassing, a very public meltdown on ice. No wonder the colour drained from his face.
“There were great hopes placed on us and we didn’t live up to them,” said Pavel Datsyuk, one of the team’s star names who failed to deliver. Ovechkin put it more bluntly. “It sucks,” he said.
As time slipped away during the final period, Ovechkin sat on the bench, sucked in his cheeks and looked heavenwards. He needed help from somewhere because it was not happening for him out on the ice. Five players in the Russian side were given more game time against Finland than the man supposed to deliver a first ice hockey gold since the Soviet Union disappeared. He will return home to Washington DC painfully early. Ovechkin was last season’s MVP in the National Hockey League but leaves Sochi with one goal and one assist for the tournament, and none since the opening four minutes against Slovenia.
He was not the only failure. Evgeni Malkin, Russia’s other one-time NHL MVP, also failed to score since opening night. None though has been as humiliated as Varlamov, hauled off after his fumble laid the Finns’ third goal on a plate for Mikael Granlund.
It had begun so well, Ilya Kovalchuk’s early strike bringing the Bolshoy to its feet. Finland’s response was prompt; Juhamatti Aaltonen equalised and then Teemu Selanne, their 43-year-old captain, veteran of more than 1,400 NHL games, put them ahead. Before the end of the first period it was three thanks to Varlamov – nicknamed From Russia With Glove at his club, Colorado Avalanche – and Granlund’s finish.
Russia poured forward, launching attack after attack but they were accompanied down the ice by a growing level of desperation. It began to look as if it was every man for himself. The pool defeat by the US on Saturday meant an extra fixture against Norway on Tuesday and that took its toll, tired minds combined with tired limbs.
Afterwards, Bilyaletdinov faced the unhappy Russian media. He knew what was coming and what will come his way in the days to come.
“You’ll eat me,” he said, “and I’ll be gone.”
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