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Tim Wharnsby - Wednesday Feb. 19, 2014 13:43

Russia's Olympic hockey team facing plenty of questions

Eliminated in quarter-finals for 2nd straight Olympics

Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk men's hockey
Russian snipers Alex Ovechkin, left, and Ilya Kovalchuk look dejected after losing to the Finns on Wednesday. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

SOCHI – Alex Ovechkin and the Russian men’s hockey team looked dazed and confused and miserable as they gathered at centre ice to lift their sticks in unison to salute their fans.

For the second straight Olympics the Russians had been ousted in the quarter-finals. In Vancouver, it was a humiliating 7-3 loss to Canada. This time it was worse because the early tournament exit happened at home to extinguish the high hopes of a country.

The 3-1 defeat to Finland on Wednesday left a trail of devastation all the way to the feet of President Vladimir Putin himself.

“Inside, I’m absolutely empty,” was how Pavel Datsyuk answered when asked how he felt.

“It sucks, that’s all I can say,” Ovechkin said bluntly.

“No emotion right now,” Ovechkin said later, when asked for what his emotions were.

As the Russians skated off the Bolshoy Ice Dome surface, some fans whistled, some fans cheered. But there were more whistles than cheers. Of course, whistling at sporting events in Europe is the equivalent of booing in North America.

The whistling actually began with about five minutes remaining in the third period. It was apparent the talented Russian team, with so many offensive weapons in Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Evegeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, was about to be snuffed out.

Russian coach Zinetula (Bill) Bilyaletdinov faced more than 300 reporters after the loss. But he said there were no easy answers as he batted aside angry questions from his fellow countrymen in the press.

What did he think of his future? He wanted to remain in charge, but admitted that’s a question for others to decide.

Was he to blame? He accepted some blame, but refused to criticize his players.

Why did he play his third line after a late-game television timeout instead of his star players? He really didn’t answer that one.

What went wrong?

“It’s difficult to answer right away,” Bilyaletdinov said. “Of course, it’s an unpleasant situation. I cannot reproach any of the players. I cannot say they did not prepare for this match. They did. They wanted to win very much, but unfortunately maybe there were some individual mistakes made and certainly we needed to score more. One goal in such a match is too little.”

Trouble scoring

The Russians scored only eight times in five games. Ovechkin didn’t check in with a goal after scoring on his first shift of the tournament last Thursday. Malkin went the last four games without a goal and certainly never meshed with his linemate, Ovechkin.

“Well, it’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score, especially the players who usually score a lot in their games, especially Alexander Ovechkin, who scored over 40 goals [for the Washington Capitals this season]. I cannot explain so far,” the Russian coach said.

In a humorous moment (at least to several Canadian reporters) Bilyaletdinov was asked if he was going to stay in Sochi and watch the rest of tournament, and if so, was there a team he was going to support now that his team had been eliminated?

The coach remarked that he wanted out of dodge.

There was plenty of criticism over the Russian roster, that Bilyaletdinov relied too much on the KHL players. The Russians had nine non-NHLers on its roster.

But it should be noted it was the NHLers who didn’t score.

It was Columbus Blue Jackets Nikita Nikitin who was undressed on the first Finland goal from Juhamatti Aaltonen. It was Los Angeles Kings defenceman Slava Voynov who couldn’t hold the puck in to allow the ageless wonder Teemu Selanne to score the game-winning goal.

'Really emotional' loss

Meanwhile, Finland had 11 non-NHLers, eight whom toil in the KHL.

“They gave few chances,” Datsyuk said. “We need to score, couldn’t score. Hard to win when we don’t score many goals.”

Was the pressure to win at home too great on Datsyuk and the Russians?

“There was lots of pressure at the beginning of the Olympics,” Datsyuk said. “But we needed to leave pressure in the locker room and play and do what you can.”

Finland has long been a Russian nemesis in hockey and a country overlooked in pre-Olympic favourites. But here are the Finns, a win away from fourth medal to go with two bronze and a silver since the NHL began participating in the Olympics in 1998.

But the fact that Finland was solid and were given full marks for their determined victory, didn’t matter to Russian and the Russian players.

“Can’t say right now,” said Datsyuk, when asked where did this defeat rank in his career? “It’s really emotional. We need to sit down and think about this one.”

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