Russian President Vladimir Putin claps during the third period of a men's ice hockey game between the USA and Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
SOCHI, Russia - As elite teams go, they aren't particularly big, they don't wear red much anymore, and as far as being a machine, well, the Russian hockey team is proving just as susceptible to nerves as anyone here at the Olympics.
Two games into the tournament is too small a sample to make a definitive statement about their chances, but not too early to say the hosts are definitely feeling the heat. The 3-2 shootout win Saturday by the United States only reinforced what happened two days earlier, when the Russians had a hard time shaking less-than-mighty Slovenia before escaping 5-2 in their opening game.
Take nothing away from the Americans. They clobbered Slovakia in their opener and then unveiled their secret weapon to steal this tournament—shootout specialist T.J. Oshie. He took six of the eight U.S. opportunities, including the last five in a row, making four with an array of slow-developing moves. The Russians used only three players, spreading their chances between Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, but managed to convert only three of eight.
"I think you're going to see T.J. Oshie become a household name after that display he put on," U.S. teammate David Backes said. "The kids'll be out on the pond probably in Minnesota right now, throwing a 5-hole on the goalie 3-4 times in a row. ... That's part of the reason he's on this team, along with some of the other things you can't put on the stat sheet."
Maybe so. But the Americans really have only two players, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, who put up superstar numbers and are fast and skilled enough to hang with the half-dozen best on Russia's roster.
Yet what seemed clear the longer this game went on is:
a.) how invaluable captain Datsyuk is. He had both of the goals in regulation, and one of three in the shootout; and
b.) if Ovechkin, Evegni Malkin, Kovalchuk and Alex Semin don't step up and match Datsyuk's effort and productivity in a hurry, the gold medal ceremony next week will be conducted entirely in English.
Every player on the U.S. side plays in the National Hockey League. Only 16 Russians are in the world's top league. So this was more about team depth and cold, hard truths than any "Miracle of Ice."
The last two of Russia's four forward lines play mostly in the domestic Kontinental Hockey League, and among the seven guys who make up the three defence pairs, there isn't even one top-flight player on a front-line NHL team.
If none of this was apparent to coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov before the tournament began, it's surely coming into focus now.
With four minutes to go in the third period and the score still 2-2, a momentum-changing goal by Russia's Fyodor Tyutin from the left point was disallowed after officials ruled the net behind U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had been loosed from its moorings. There seemed to be some question whether Quick had a hand in the deed, but the first time Bilyaletdinov was asked about it, he didn't take the bait. When it bubbled up a second time, he implied the refs might not investigated thoroughly enough.
"I do believe there was a mistake," Bilyaletdinov said, and it turns out as criticism goes, he was just warming up.
He minced no words when the focus shifted to Alex Radulov, a former top draft pick with the NHL's Nashville Predators who wore out his welcome there, the first time by packing himself off to the KHL when a bigger offer materialized, and then again when some off-the-ice behaviour made him not worth the bother.
When he wasn't busy hogging the puck, Radulov was collecting two of his team's five penalties on the night. Bilyaletdinov said he might not get the chance to do either against Russia's next opponent, twice-beaten Slovakia.
"Scratch?" Bilyaletdinov repeated a question. "Yeah, I guess."
"Unfortunately," the coach added candidly, "he was not really living up to our expectations."
Ovechkin is not in the doghouse yet, though he was pinned to the bench during the shootout. Bilyaletdinov didn't explain why—"It's a difficult decision," was all he said. But Ovechkin is Russia's biggest winter star and his face is plastered across Coca-Cola ads all around the country. After his performance Saturday night, his visage might as well grace—as the old joke goes—the back of milk cartons as well.
President Vladimir Putin watched the game from a seat at the top of the lower bowl, and plenty of Ovechkin's countrymen watched live, too, gathering in front of giant television screens set up in Olympic Park. What's certain is that if Ovehckin and the rest of the heirs of the old Soviet "Big Red Machine" dynasty don't settle down and start playing a lot better, they'll know where to find them.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke
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