However you want to classify Russia’s top-six (best in the world? One of the best in the world?), there’s no denying they have an ungodly amount of talent. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Radulov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Semin comprise that group, and each one is known for possessing raw offensive gifts. In a tournament like the Olympics where great teams are bound to run into a couple pushovers along the way, you’d expect a group like this to put up a crazy amount of goals. Only…they haven’t.
Today they beat the last place team in the tournament, Norway, by scoring two goals in the first 59 minutes (they added an empty-netter and a nobody-is-trying-bonus one after that). They beat the Slovaks 1-0 in a shootout – the same Slovak squad that lost to a Slovenian team with a single NHLer on it. They only scored twice against the US, a legitimate opponent, and their big output came against Slovenia, who they beat 5-2. That game aside, we haven’t seen the fireworks we expected.
To my eyes, their offensive issues seem to stem from a too-big gap between their D-men and forwards all over the ice (particularly when breaking the puck out and regrouping in the neutral zone), which is usually the product of overeagerness. In their case, it seems to be a combo of that overeagerness from the forwards, and their D-men getting their feet stuck in quicksand.
There were a half-dozen instances in the second period alone where I found myself a little baffled by the utter lack of support the D were provided. I can’t include a video (Olympic rights and whatnot), so here’s a screenshot of the forward’s “supporting” Nikita Nikitin. They’re all at the far blue, and he’s going to take a slapshot to get the puck up to them. Nice.
The best part is, in the shot above, he passes it past the forward skating out of the screen about three seconds later to the far blueline, and a turnover.
The six Russian forwards I mentioned all know one thing: if they don’t put up numbers, there will be questions. That can be a problem given there’s only so much puck to go around, and all of them are used to being the trigger men on their own teams. They’re used to players seeking them out, and they’re used to having the powerplay involve them heavily. When they’re not afforded the same opportunities to score goals, it’s easy to see why they’d start to cheat.
When you come up the ice as a five man unit you can move the puck like it’s ultimate frisbee. Those short passes allow you a multitude of lanes to choose from, which makes it easier to force your opponent to have to rotate, and making guys think and move is the best way to create holes. You’ve also got the play in front of you, so you can make the choice to rush the puck wide or move laterally depending on the gap you’re allowed. And quite simply, you’re better off with the puck inside traffic than skating into it and then trying to acquire it via a long pass. If you can avoid making your opponent’s job easier, you should.
If you’re a d-man and you notice your forwards are getting to far away from you, the last thing you should do is what Nikitin did in the clip above – park and try to fire a home run pass. You’ve got to get your skates moving up-ice. You can still pass the puck while moving, that’s allowed. Just make your own job easier by getting skating.
The Russians have all the talent in the world, but they’re not allowing themselves enough clean possessions. Trying to catch stretch passes in traffic isn’t going to get you more, so they’ve got to be more patient, come back and support each other, and realize that the only thing they’re cheating by leaving the zone so early is themselves.