Olympic Hockey: The Russians are (maybe) coming

Pavel Datsyuk, Team Russia

Pavel Datsyuk, Team Russia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The 2014 Winter Olympic hockey tournament has been surprising so far, to say the least. Defenceman Drew Doughty leads Team Canada in scoring, two-time Cup winner Patrick Kane called Phil Kessel the best player he’s ever played with, and the host Russians have left much to be desired after three games of preliminary action on home ice. But, expect that the best is yet to come from the proud, pressured hosts.

The Russians didn’t dominate the preliminary round like the Swedes, Canadians or Americans, all of whom went undefeated. Alex Ovechkin and his comrades have eased into the tournament, needing a strong 3rd period to beat the bright green Slovenes, a shootout to knock off the aging Slovaks, and they lost a classic to Team USA in the preliminary round’s most entertaining game.

About the loss to America: It was Russia’s toughest opponent and its best performance so far in Sochi. Perhaps, a challenge brings out the best in the skillful hosts, who haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since the 1992 Games when they competed under the “Unified Team” moniker.

Against the Americans, Russia scored what appeared to be a late go-ahead-goal with under five minutes remaining in the 3rd period. But the goal was disallowed because U. S. goaltender Jonathan Quick had slightly dislodged his net off its moorings. It’s irrelevant, but in the NHL the goal would’ve counted.

Only Jonathan Quick knows if he knocked the net loose on purpose, however, Russian defenceman Slava Voynov, who is Quick’s teammate on the L. A. Kings, suggested that “it is in his style to do something like that.

It took eight rounds of shootout for the U. S. – on the breakaway heroics of T. J. Oshie – to close out the Russians. In other words, the game could’ve gone either way. Thankfully Russian president Vladimir Putin has decided not to “tar” referee Brad Meier for his controversial disallowing of Russia’s 3rd period go-ahead-goal.

The Russians play Norway in a few hours in their first elimination game at these Games. It’s a soiree they’re expected to win with ease, but every Olympic hockey tournament features at least one ridiculous upset, and this could be Sochi’s. That being said, the no-name Norwegians are probably not going to best the proud hosts at do-or-die hockey in front of thousands of gold thirsty Russian fans.

Russia has to beat Norway today because it failed to earn a bye directly to the quarterfinals where the top seeded Swedes, Americans, Canadians and Finns await the survivors. There were four reservations to the quarterfinals and Russia didn’t book one. The Russians must now take a longer route to victory, instead. But the lengthy path that lies ahead for Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk and his countrymen is one that is often paved with gold.

In 2010, the host Canadians failed to secure a bye to the quarters. Their preliminary round loss to the U. S. forced them to play an extra game. The Russian Olympic hockey journey is shaping up to almost mimic Canada’s golden run in Vancouver: Preliminary round loss to the States, shootout win over team they should’ve beat comfortably… it’s almost a carbon copy.

The tournament was structured differently at the 2006 Games in Torino but the journey was eerily similar for the gold medal winning Swedes. Back in ’06, Sweden finished the preliminary round with an average 3-2 record, handily losing 3-0 to the Slovaks and 5-0 to Russia. But the Swedes ultimately benefited from the luck of the draw.

Where a nation is situated in the playoff bracket has a lot to do with how it performs at these Olympic hockey tournaments. The ’06 Swedes landed on the good side of the playoff tree, sheltered from meeting the Canadians, Russians, Americans or Finns until the gold medal game. Sweden got Switzerland in the quarters and the Czechs in the semis. Their rivals from Finland met them in the final. The Swedes won gold with a star-studded lineup that featured Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin and Nicklas Lidstrom. But they won gold without having to eliminate Russia, Canada, or the U. S..

Russia is on the favourable side of the playoff bracket in Sochi. They must go through the banged up Finns and they’ll most likely be required to eliminate the depleted Swedes in the semis, but they will avoid the tournament’s healthiest clubs from North America until the final act of the Olympic hockey drama that is about to unfold. And if Russia is standing in the end, when two teams remain, their opponent will be licking fresh wounds from the semis; the looming North American Hockey War that awaits, barring a major malfunction by one of the returning finalists from four years ago.

These tournaments are no different than the Stanley Cup playoffs. Before the elimination stage begins we look at stats, or recall moments from the season (preliminary round), and we develop a picture in our minds: this team should win because they did this and that to get here. But everything changes when tournament death is staring a nation down and the only option is to win at all costs.

The Americans beat the Russians in the round-robin so it’s easy to assume they’re the team to beat. They narrowly beat the Russians, though. And if a lesson is to be learned from the 2010 Games in Vancouver, beating the host in the preliminary round does not, in any way, ensure you’ll beat them again in front of their own people when twenty-five gold medals are dangling in a back room somewhere in the building; this building being the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Russia.

Canada has Sidney Crosby and they won the tournament four years ago, so it’s easy to conclude they are well on their way to another gold medal. But they can be had, under the right circumstances. Canada can be toppled in hockey, especially if all it takes is one game to oust them.

The point is, the real tournament begins today. What you saw in the preliminary round means zilch now. This is the portion of the tournament where the Finns and the Czechs go into a defensive shell that makes scoring against them excruciatingly painful, if not impossible.

It is at this stage in Olympic hockey when one mistake can be the difference between euphoria and misery; it can be golden.

It is in the elimination portion of the Olympic hockey tournament where you can expect the unexpected from the unheard of; an upset for the ages; a goalie’s career ruined.

Winning hockey gold is the only solution for Team Russia at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Pride is on the line, a gold-starved nation is watching closely, and truth be told, the Russians have the firepower to win one for Mother Russia. But in order to win one they need to win four. It begins today against Norway. The Olympic hockey tournament is officially open for business and the Russians are in the market for some fancy gold pendants.