Why did Russia’s hockey team fall flat in Sochi?

7 Comments

For hockey (and really sports) fans in Sochi, the reaction to Russia bowing out of the Olympic tournament following a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland can be summarized as such:

source: AP
Credit: AP

The rest of us can at least ask questions like “How?” and “Why?” Here are the potential roots of Russia’s demise, with copious amounts of help from Pro Hockey Talk.

The pressure

Playing in your host country can be a big advantage … unless it creates enough pressure that players start thinking too much. Alex Ovechkin acknowledged the anxiety but ultimately shrugged it off to NBC’s Joe Posnanski before the Olympics started.

“Of course there’s pressure,” Ovechkin said. “It’s your whole country.”

VIDEO: Mike Milbury says “a loss like this lasts a lifetime”

When Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to calm people down about a controversial goal, you know a country takes a sport seriously.

The roster

source: AP
Credit: AP

Everyone has their own view of what “the best team possible” is, but some countries must satisfy more “political” issues. Like, say, acknowledging the Russian-centric KHL (widely considered the second most prominent hockey league to the NHL).

While some of these players have appeared in the NHL before, it’s still notable how many players were plucked from an inferior league (let’s exclude Ilya Kovalchuk for obvious talent-related reasons):

Alexander Yeryomenko, Ilya Nikulin, Yevgeni Medvedev, Viktor Tikhonov, Alexander Svitov, Alexander Popov, Alexei Tereshenko and Alexander Radulov.

Radulov is talented – if wildly polarizing – in his own right, but maybe Russia put too much pressure on top players? Let’s not forget that depth players can make a big difference; a certain fellow named T.J. Oshie wasn’t a lock to make the U.S. roster by any means.

Goalie flip-flopping

If the Olympic tournament wasn’t such a speedy blur, one could almost imagine people taking sides with goalies Semyon Varlamov (#TeamVarly?) and Sergei Bobrovsky (#TeamBob). Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov waffled between the two, including starting Varlamov in today’s elimination game after going with Bobrovsky in Tuesday’s do-or-die contest.

Naturally, Varlamov was pulled for Bobrovsky during Wednesday’s game.

The power play

With names like Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk available, you’d think that the Russian power play would be a nightmare. It was … but usually for the Russian team itself.

Their struggling power play unit was a storyline for much of the playoffs, even after an easy qualification playoff game against Norway.

Star failures

Fair or not, Russian players frequently get blamed in NHL playoff losses. Aside from the Malkin – Datsyuk – Radulov line and Kovalchuk, many Russian scorers would probably admit that they are disappointed with their tournament play. Others will … likely use harsher words.

(The word “choke” will almost undoubtedly be trotted out.)

Their opponents

It’s easy to beat up on Russia, but it’s not like they lost to bad teams. The U.S. is the defending silver medal winners from 2010 and Finland is a steady international threat (especially on larger ice surfaces). Some believe that Tuukka Rask is the best goalie in the world; he was in net for a Boston Bruins team that kept Malkin and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins from recording a single point in a 2013 playoff series, after all.

***

Whatever way you slice it, it’s difficult to overstate how much this failure hurts the Russian team and their country as a whole. It’s likely those involved will be soul-searching for many years following this resounding finish.

Michael Phelps to participate in Shark Week

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Olympic champ Michael Phelps is participating in Discovery network’s Shark Week this summer, although he won’t be asked to outswim one.

It’s not immediately clear what Phelps will be doing, although Discovery President Rich Ross said Tuesday he’s intrigued about seeing the fastest human swimmer interact with nature’s fastest. Perhaps Phelps can be encouraged to go underwater in a shark cage, he said.

The week of shark-themed programming in mid-summer is annually Discovery’s biggest event. Now that it is approaching its 29th year, programmers are on the lookout for a new wrinkle.

Phelps has won 28 Olympic swimming medals, 23 of them gold.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Phelps: I don’t know what to tell my son about doping

World Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview

Leave a comment

Alex Shibutani says he and sister Maia have made a statement the past two years.

“With our ability to perform when the stakes are highest,” he said.

The stakes don’t get much higher than this week.

The Shibutani siblings, breakout world silver medalists a year ago, lead three U.S. couples who finished in the top six at the 2016 World Championships into this year’s worlds in Helsinki.

It is the strongest ice dance field since the Sochi Olympics. The PyeongChang Winter Games medal contenders will be confirmed this week.

The clear favorites are Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions competing this season for the first time since taking silver in Sochi. Virtue and Moir returned from their two-year break to post the three highest total scores of all time in their last three international competitions.

“This is probably the most prepared we’ve been for a world championships,” Moir said, while adding, “this was a warm-up season.”

PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Dance | TV schedule

The Shibutanis finished second (with a personal-best score) to Virtue and Moir at the most recent event, the Four Continents Championships at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea in February. The margin separating the two couples — 5.1 points — was considerable.

“We’re sort of in a way in a race against ourselves to try and see how good we can get and how good we can become,” Alex Shibutani said. “Each competition along the way is another step to that eventual goal [the Olympics].”

At worlds, the Shibutanis are in the medal mix with France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who won the last two world titles.

The French, already the youngest world champs in 40 years, are trying for the first ice dance three-peat in 20 years.

But they have not progressed this season, unable to match or better their winning score from the 2016 World Championships.

Papadakis and Cizeron train in Montreal with Virtue and Moir, but they struggled (held against their own standard) in both competitions outside of French borders this season. And in different areas — step sequences, twizzles, lifts.

Conversely, it looks like the Shibutanis’ biggest obstacles are well behind them. They went from a world bronze medal in their first senior season together in 2011 to four straight years off the podium.

The Shibutanis hit a nadir at the Sochi Olympics with a ninth-place finish, worst of the three U.S. couples. Maia’s tights snagged on Alex’s sequined jacket during a lift.

The devoted vloggers countered doubts after Sochi by stressing their youth — Alex was 22 then; Maia was 19. They talked about weathering the journey and sticking to a meticulous creative process.

It paid off with their first U.S. title last year, followed by that world silver medal in Boston.

“Last year’s results at the world championships were very energizing for us,” Alex Shibutani said. “People are aware of the career trajectory that we have had. We’ve set ambitious goals because we were so motivated following that result and that exciting string of competitions that we had last season.”

The Shibutanis were actually outscored by two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates in the U.S. Championships free dance in January. They stormed back with that personal best at Four Continents, though, erasing any doubt that they are the U.S. couple expected to make the podium in Helsinki.

The U.S. has earned 12 ice dance medals at the last 12 World Championships. In that same span, the U.S. brought home eight medals combined from men’s, women’s and pairs.

The Shibutanis feel confident they will extend recent American success in their discipline.

They would also create more history for sibling skaters. They’re already the most accomplished brother-sister duo since Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay of France won three straight world medals followed by Olympic silver in Albertville.

“We really elevated the way that we compete and perform,” at Four Continents last month, Alex Shibutani said. “Our skating has reached another level.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds