Let me start this post off by laying out my rooting interests when it comes to hockey. I'm a San Jose Sharks fan and season ticket holder. As an American hockey fan, I'd like Team USA to win the gold medal, but it's not a life-and-death rooting interest for me; the Stanley Cup takes precedence. With that in mind, my main goal for these Olympics is to watch some really great hockey and hope that the key Sharks players don't get hurt.
Like any hockey fan, I spent all day looking forward to the Canada-Russia game. I really didn't care who won; there are players on both teams that I regularly support as Sharks and guys that I just like as hockey players. If anything, I just wanted to see a competitive, hard-fought tilt that exemplified the strength and skill of both teams.
That was mistake #1. After the first period, I thought the Russians would pull Evgeni Nabokov (get those bad games out now, Nabby!) and we'd see them claw back to try and grab some of the momentum for a fairly entertaining final two periods. What we got, however, was passionless, mistake-prone hockey filled with lazy backchecking and selfish puck-possession. Team Canada may have come out flying to start, but you could tell that the Russians were off the game from the beginning. They lacked jump, they lacked efficiency, but most importantly, they lacked heart. They weren't skating and they weren't hitting -- two key aspects of winning any high-profile match-up.
Following the Slovakia loss, Team Russia coach Vyacheslav Bykov called the Russian roster passionless and said they were essentially shadows on the ice. He singled out Alex Ovechkin as one of the few leaders on the team, and I figured that in those big-time showdown against Canada, the one guarantee we'd get was that Ovechkin would be flying.
That was mistake #2, and I think a bigger surprise than the overall heartless Russian plan.
Love him or hate him, there's no question that Ovechkin plays each shift like it's his last. Heck, he lives life that way. For him to be caught flat-footed, without making a big hit or driving the net, just seemed strange, and it was beyond disappointing. Greg Wyshynski summed it up best when he called Ovechkin's performance pathetic, and it's one of the rare times when we saw listless play from a guy who seems excited every time his blades touch the ice. It'll be curious to see what Caps fans think about this. While there's no doubt that these were team events, that's two big elimination games where Ovechkin led his mates to spectacular embarrassments.
The thing is, the score could have been the same but Ovechkin could have skated off the rink with his dignity in tact. We've seen countless times where a team collapses but one or two key leaders leave valiant, gut-check efforts on the ice. That's what Ovechkin did against Slovakia. There was no repeat performance against Canada.
In the end, this reminded me of, ironically, Game 7 of last year's Pittsburgh Penguins/Washington Capitals series as well as the infamous Patrick Roy meltdown when the Colorado Avalanche got blown out against the Detroit Red Wings in 2002. We were robbed of a classic game, but the Russians were robbed of their dignity -- and for a hockey superpower transitioning from the Sergei Fedorov/Pavel Bure era to the Ovechkin/Evgeni Malkin era, that's not a good sign.