The elbowing for medals is getting more interesting
Posted: Thursday February 16, 2006 3:16PM; Updated: Friday February 17, 2006 12:19AM
Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov stopped all 24 shots he faced in a shutout of Sweden.
David E. Klutho/SI
Russia finally arrived in Turin in spirit after hanging around in body for a few days, turning the Olympic tournament into an intriguing roundelay. With the Dominik Hasek-less Czechs falling to Switzerland and the suddenly sprightly Russians displaying skill and spunk in a 5-0 win over Sweden -- which now faces the possibility of star Peter Forsberg not playing a minute because of his sore groin -- the elbowing for spots behind tournament favorite Canada has become vigorous.
Too bad for the Swedes, whom trouble seems to follow like a black cloud. During a Canada Cup tournament in the 1980s, I once asked Sweden coach Anders Parmstrom, whose nickname was "the Duck," why his squad was faring so poorly. His measured reply: "Too many Swedes." Now with Forsberg a probable empty suit on the roster, they are at least one big Swede short.
Perhaps Sweden deserved better in the scoreless first period when it was foiled by a newly minted Russian and ex-Kazakh goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who slithered through the IIHF eligibility requirements -- some gray area about the breakup of the Soviet Union -- more adroitly than the five pucks Russia finally pumped past Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Russia, losers to Slovakia in the opener, received significant contributions from Evgeni Malkin, who is continuing his apprenticeship in the Russian Superleague before joining Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, and a goal from NHL rookie revelation Alexander Ovechkin, who sees the red light go on and thinks its Santa's sleigh. You would have surmised from Ovechkin's hip-hop goal celebration that he had scored in the Olympic final, a distinct possibility if Russia maintains its brio.
The Russians have followed Mario Lemieux's dictum that hockey is a young man's game, throwing their kids into the Olympic mix. The decision is as much practical as philosophical -- because of a shocking lack of depth at forward, the unprepossessing Alexander Korolyuk was promoted to replace the injured Alex Zhamov -- but it might work. The exuberance against the Swedes was vaguely reminiscent of the team that handily won the 1992 gold medal. Post-Soviet Union, Russia was called the Unified Team then.
Given their current propensity for "capitalist hockey," as one NHL assistant coach phrased it, that might have been the last time the Russians were unified.
"If they're going to play with a spark like that, we've got a pretty good chance," said defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, a member of that 1992 champion. "It's fun to be around them. When we came to the '92 Olympics, I don't think anybody thought we would win. We had only two veteran players. The rest of us were 19-, 20-year-old kids. We were just happy to be in Olympics at that time and we ended up winning it. Right now it's coming back. Any tournament we play, Olympics, world championships, guys are concentrating more now on winning, bringing back good hockey to Russian people. Before you could sense that [players] used to come and just coast around and just be there. But right now I think guys want to be here and work hard and just play good hockey."
That's the difference between the Russians and the North American teams in the tournament, especially Canada. Canada first focused on the ring that came with the Stanley Cup; the Russians focused on the rings of the Olympic movement. Despite the failures of the past 14 years, Hockey Night in Turin stirs the Russian soul.
"I think everyone dreamed when we were growing up young guys," winger Ilya Kovalchuk said. "The Stanley Cup is huge, but Olympic Games, you play for the country. Millions of people in your country celebrate with you. I think for Russians, this is the most important win -- the Olympic Games. Now a lot of [NHL] GMs say they don't want you to go, you might get injured. But it's our dream to play for the national team. And they can't stop us."