Russia didn't just lose at the 2014 Winter Olympics. It was embarrassed and outplayed during a tournament that had been seven years in the making. Sochi was awarded the Winter Games in 2007 and it seemed like everything outside of the Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Arena was just window dressing.
Vladimir Putin didn't loom in the stands like a gargoyle during slopestyle events, but he was on hand for Russian hockey games.
Just imagine the pressure Putin's presence put on the players—it's akin to Barack Obama heavily petitioning for a Summer Olympics just to show the world how dominating men's basketball is in America while on home soil.
That was the weight that Evgeni Malkin carried to his home nation. With his team bowing out without a medal for the third consecutive Winter Games, it's hard to imagine that he's not bringing some of that extra baggage back to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Losing in Sochi isn't like losing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Malkin and his teammates had one chance to win a gold medal in front of hometown fans. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it developed into a once-in-a-lifetime letdown.
How do you cope with that? Especially when everyone seems to be talking about this one particular failure. In a Winter Games where the number of losers far, far exceeds the number of winners, the men's Russian ice hockey team has undergone the most intense scrutiny of all.
It's possible the team would have received less attention had it won.
Everyone seems to be chiming in about how Malkin and Alex Ovechkin let their nation down. According to Adrian Dater of The Denver Post, Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy spoke about the duo during his weekly appearance on 104.3 The Fan and didn't mince words:
After the first period (in first game) – whoop, they disappeared. They certainly deserve to take some heat, because they were the leaders of that team. That was their responsibility, to bring the team to another level.
The first period that Roy is referring to would be Russia's opening preliminary contest against Slovenia. It should have set a triumphant tone for the Russians moving forward. Ovechkin scored 1:17 into the contest, and Malkin was a part of that slick passing play.
The Penguins superstar posted a quiet three points through five games the rest of the way and seemed to struggle with being one of the faces of the Olympics. He also struggled to find a rhythm with Ovechkin on what should have been the best line in the tournament.
So how large of a ghost will follow Malkin back to the NHL?
If he had come back after the 2010 Olympic Games on fire, then perhaps there wouldn't be cause for concern. That wasn't the case, though, and he struggled following Russia's disappointing showing in Vancouver.
Prior to the 2010 tournament, Malkin had scored 65 points in 55 games. After returning, he was quieter, posting 12 points in 12 games prior to the end of the regular season. He scored five times in 13 playoff games before the Penguins were turned on their heads by an upset at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.
A stronger Malkin and perhaps things don't go south so quickly for Pittsburgh against Montreal. Maybe Penguins fans wouldn't still get the chills when they hear the name Jaroslav Halak. Russia's fans are going to have to live with that cold feeling for the rest of their lives, however.
Leonid Chizhov of the Associated Press spoke to some Russian fans after they witnessed the team's loss to Finland during the quarterfinal. Boris Popov, a construction worker from Siberia, didn't hold back in his comments:
It is such a shame. There are no words.
There are eight million people in Finland. We have 140 million. Fifteen times more kids are playing ice hockey here. Where are they?
They change a jersey and go to the NHL and only think of their bank accounts. They just ruin ice hockey. Not a single child dreams of hockey now. Only about money.
If those kinds of comments aren't on Malkin's radar verbatim, he has to be aware that this is the taste he left on his home nation's tongue. He'd been prepping for the Sochi games since 2007.
Putin then put on a 17-day event that was more expensive than any other Olympics in history—all just the frame for what would be the nation's return to dominance out on the ice. That was the expectation. There was no secret about it.
Malkin let his team, nation and himself down. Expecting him to find his high gear upon returning to the Penguins just isn't realistic. He's a professional, but that doesn't make him immune to heartbreak and reflection on what might have been.
Russia set a new record for gold medals in these winter games. Except for Malkin, Ovechkin and the rest of the disgraced 2014 Winter Olympic men's hockey team, it seems that mostly every other Russian competitor understood the moment and seized it.
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