VANCOUVER — Somewhere in Moscow—perhaps in the archives of the old Physical Culture and Sports Committee of the Soviet government— you can bet there is a yellowed playbook with an Orwellian-sounding title like: “How to Beat the Bourgeois at their Game of Ice and Sticks.”
If such a volume exists, Vyacheslav Bykov should dig it up and blow the dust off it, because if he survives the next few days as coach of Russia’s national men’s hockey team, he’s going to need a game plan. And he could do a lot worse than the bloodless systems methodically applied by his forbears at Spartak or Central Army. At least they understood the value of discipline.
Instead, Bykov brought the strategic equivalent of a cocktail napkin to Canada Hockey Place tonight, where his players handed Team Canada a 7-3 victory on a platter, providing what two days ago had seemed a fragile team all the confidence it needs to contend for a medal.
It was an epic defeat for the Russians, who in 58 years of Olympic hockey have lost to Canada only once, and that was back in 1960, before the Big Red Machine really got rolling.
For the Canadians, it was sweetness distilled. After months of hype about a possible Canada-Russia showdown, after their slow-ish start at these Games, after some none-too-subtle suggestions by Russia’s talented forwards that they were spoiling to take the home boys down (all those world championships must mean something!), they vanquished the foe in style.
The Canadians left the ice amid a victory serenade from the crowd, and try as they might to keep their emotions in check, they clearly felt vindicated.
“We knew we had a great team and we had confidence in our room,” said forward Eric Staal, who had one assist on a night of highlight-reel goals for Canada. “We came after them right away and I thought our emotion and energy carried us through. We were at the boiling point as soon as the puck dropped to start that game.”
Roberto Luongo played a strong game in the Canadian nets, stopping 25 of 28 shots, and stoning Evgeni Malkin on a breakaway in the third period. He’ll likely get the start in the semifinal on Friday.
The surprise outcome has enormous implications, not least that the Canadians once again will wake up as the favorites to win gold at the 2010 Winter Games. That’s not as pleasing as you might think to coach Mike Babcock, who has dedicated a fair amount of time this past week trying to smooth out the highs and lows of his players’ Olympic experience.
“We think we’re going in the right direction, but all that happened here today is that we’re back at the tournament,” he said. “We have to continue to get better and stay focused. There are no guarantees. As you’ve seen in all these games, it’s a fine line [between winning and losing]. ”
The win also means a date in the semi-finals with Slovakia, who added a chapter to their own improbable storyline by knocking off Sweden, the defending Olympic champions and a team led by the Sedin twins of the Vancouver Canucks. It’s hard to imagine the crowd working up the same level of fervour for Slovakia that it did against Russia. But you never know.
The greatest surprise tonight’s game was how easily Canada shut down Russia’s big offensive stars. The long-billed showdown between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby proved a squib, as neither registered a point, but Ovechkin in particular seemed unable to summon his usual brio. Ilya Kovalchuk and Malkin each had an assist, but Malkin was drawn into some late-game jostling with Ryan Getzlaf.
In general, the Russian forwards looked scattered and undisciplined. Again and again, they made neutral zone turnovers that resulted in goals they’ll have to watch for years. Corey Perry scored two of them, while Getzlaf, Dan Boyle, Brenden Morrow, Rick Nash and Shea Weber had one each, chasing starting Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov from the net less than five minutes into the second period.
The whole spectacle was too much for Bykov, who apologized through a translator to the thousands of Russian fans who paid top dollar to get into the game, and who contributed a lot to the festive atmosphere.
“It was a very strong team today playing against us, and we couldn’t [handle] the pressure from the Canadian team,” he said, staring ahead impassively. “We were trying to play different ways, but everything just failed and nothing helped.”
Bykov said he was impressed by the level of the Canadians’ intensity, then added tersely: “Unfortunately I can’t say the same thing about the game by the Russian team.”