GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 21: Mikhail Grigorenko #25 of the Olympic Athletes from Russia celebrates with Ivan Telegin #7 and Vyacheslav Voinov #26 after scoring a first period goal against Norway during quarterfinal round action at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
What a difference 10 days can make
Pilloried after losing to Slovakia, the Olympic Athletes from Russia are on the verge of glory. What has made such a difference for Oleg Znarok's men?
Gangneung, 14 February. The highly-fancied Olympic Athletes from Russia roster came off the ice following a 3-2 loss in its opening game against Slovakia – and walked into a storm of criticism.
‘No Plan B’, screamed the headlines back home. Complaints ranged from the repeated failure of the Russian power play to uncertain goaltending and ponderous defence. After just 60 minutes of hockey, it felt like the frustrations of Sochi were coming back once more.
Gangneung, 25 February. The Olympic Athletes from Russia face off against Germany, hoping to win the first gold medal of a team from the country in ice hockey since 1992. Since losing to Slovakia, the Russians have dealt imperiously with all comers, scoring 21 goals in four games and allowing just three. Vasili Koshechkin has two shutouts in those four, including 31 saves to blank the Czechs in the semi-final and guarantee his team its first Olympic medal since 2002. Not even the surprise omission of Vadim Shipachyov from the line-up has sparked much controversy among Russian journalists.
So what’s changed?
Firstly, the OAR team is delivering consistent 60-minute performances. Against Slovakia, it started like the well-oiled Red Machine of old, only to splutter to a halt after a few minutes of dominance. Subsequently, though, the Russians have cruised into top gear – and have been quicker to point up their own shortcomings. Nikita Nesterov’s reflections on the 6-1 victory over Norway focused not on an emphatic march into the last four, but on a second-period lull that briefly gave the Norwegians a chance to compete. That’s not the tone Russian players often adopt, suggesting a subtle change in attitude behind the team’s drive to the gold medal game.
The power play has perked up. After going 0-and-6 with a man advantage against Slovakia, OAR is 5-from-11 in its subsequent games. That puts it third on the overall PP conversion chart. Even when, as against the Czechs, the power play doesn’t bring goals, it has helped give the team momentum, as Ilya Kovalchuk pointed out after the semi-final success.
Another difference: defence. Traditionally, Russian teams – regardless of their name – are not renowned for doing the ugly stuff. Scintillating offence and individual flair? Sure. Blocking shots and pushing the opposition to the outside? Not so much. This time, though, it’s been a bit different. Check out the PK stats, and you find the OAR on top of the chart, allowing just one goal from 20 situations when it was up against it. Znarok’s decision – widely queried in Russia before the Games – to select the bulk of his roster from SKA and CSKA seems to be paying off: the players know each other, the special teams know each other, and there’s a cohesion to the team’s play at both ends of the ice that is making it hard to score on them. With Koshechkin shaking off his early uncertainty, this team is not allowing many goals.
So, can we just put the gold medals on now? It’s tempting to assume the final will be one-sided, for all of Germany’s heroics to get this far. But don’t go telling anyone in the Russian camp that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. There’s confidence, but nothing is taken for granted.
CSKA defenceman Bogdan Kiselevich paid tribute to the Germans’ progress. “They’re a really mobile, disciplined team,” he said. “They defend well, they don’t allow counter-attacks. Look at the first half of their game against Canada, there was barely a meaningful look at the net for the Canadians.
“We can’t say that it’s a joke to play Germany in the final. The team defeated Sweden and Canada on its own merits, so this is a serious opponent. I don’t think any of us were celebrating because of the opposition, we’re working as usual.”
Kiselevich remembers watching the last Olympic final involving the Russians, 20 years ago in Nagano. “I remember how disappointed we were, how sad it was,” he said. “But there was nothing similar when we played the Czechs again [in the semi-final].”
After getting an early taste of disappointment in Korea, Kiselevich and his colleagues will be determined to ensure there’s no repeat of that unpleasant surprise when the tournament reaches its climax.