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|Varlamov scapegoat in Russia's sad loss
20.02.2014. Kiszla, Mark. Denver Post
The weight of a despondent hockey nation on his shoulders and the sting of a shattered dream in his eyes, Russian goalie Semyon Varlamov stared at the floor and walked away, like a man condemned for life with the memory of a catastrophic 3-1 loss to Finland on Wednesday that eliminated his country from the Olympic tournament.
"Varly! Varly! Varly!" I barked at Varlamov in the mixed zone of Bolshoy Ice Palace.
The 25-year-old goalie did not look up. He looked like a zombie, wearing the mask men often use to cover unbearable pain. After losing the biggest game of his life, Varlamov kept walking to the Russian locker room that was quickly filling with eyes sadder than a Tolstoy peasant.
"Eat me alive right now," said Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, his voice the monotone of a guy who knows he is doomed to athletic infamy in the country he calls home. Watching him explain the stunning defeat was to witness a coach being crucified. Told by a Russian journalist the defeat was a catastrophe, Bilyaletdinov seemed to have difficulty summoning the energy to fight back, saying: "Let's not play with words. We were unsuccessful. Call it what you will."
In the middle of this catastrophe was Varlamov, the goalie who must now return to the United States, trade in the uniform of his national team for an Avalanche sweater and somehow get on with his NHL life, as Colorado needs him to seal its first playoff bid since 2010.
In a game Russia could not afford to lose, in a sport that is a source of national pride, at an Olympics that cost $50 billion for President Vladimir Putin to build, Varlamov was given the start between the pipes against Finland in the quarterfinals. He lasted less than 27 minutes on the game clock before getting benched after surrendering three goals on 15 shots.
I asked the 58-year-old Bilyaletdinov whether he yanked Varlamov as a result of poor performance or merely to shake up his team in the hope of changing the momentum.
"Nyet," was Bilyaletdinov's first word of reply, shooting down the idea he benched Varlamov in favor of Sergei Bobrovsky as a motivational ploy.
"It wasn't that I wanted to change something," an ashen-faced Bilyaletdinov said. "To change Varlamov was my decision."
Russian teammates, well aware an offense led by NHL stars Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin had been inexplicably quiet throughout the Olympic tournament, rushed to the defense of Varlamov. When Anton Belov was asked if he thought Varly would take the brunt of blame for losing to Finland, the Russian defenseman said: "Who thinks that? I don't think that."
Varlamov did cough up an early 1-0 lead. If three goats of the game were awarded, however, the horns rightfully would be placed on the heads of teammates who appeared gassed after playing four games in five days. Bilyaletdinov threw Ovechkin under the bus, suggesting the most famous hockey player in Russia was far more valuable to the Washington Capitals than his national team.
The first score by Finland was the result of a gorgeous play by Juhamatti Aaltonen that beat Varly low to the glove side. The second Finnish goal happened after a complete breakdown of the Russian defense allowed veteran Teemu Selanne to sweep in alone down the slot, take a pass and unleash a shot that made Varlamov look helpless.
But a power-play goal, which staked Finland to an insurmountable 3-1 advantage 5 minutes, 37 seconds into the second period, could give Varlamov sleepless nights for years to come. A loose puck slid by him and was slammed home by Mikael Granlund.
Varlamov knew his time on the ice was done. The benching was no surprise by a desperate coach reaching for answers. Varlamov wore a red Russian cap on the bench and never took a seat for the rest of the game, standing behind his teammates as they caved under the pressure.
"To be honest, I'm a little sad for them," Selanne told me. "Obviously, they had a big dream to win a gold meal here, and it didn't work, so it's disappointing in many ways. ... But again, this is proving to the hockey world that you never know."
As the final minutes of the third period ticked away, I walked through the arena concourse, where concession workers stared at the television in disbelief, policemen muttered in disgust and a fan trudged to the exit with a Russian flag draped over his head.
"It sucks. That's all I can say," Ovechkin said.
Varlamov does not have to shoulder the blame alone for a national sports disaster. A defeat so hard to digest, however, can sit heavy in the gut for a long time.
How can a friend help Varlamov get past the pain? After the United States beat the Czech Republic 5-2 and advanced to the medal round against Canada, American center Paul Stastny took time to reflect on what he might tell Varly when they gather again in the Avalanche dressing room.
"I don't think he was at fault for any of the three goals against Russia, and that's the first thing I look at when Varly's on my team. Even that third goal was kind of a fluke, after a missed shot," said Stastny, who had already seen video of Varlamov's tough night.
"I think Russia pulled him to try to bring the energy up or change the momentum. Listen, he played well throughout the tournament. And everyone knows it's really tough in this one-and-done format against all these countries. You don't have the Big Three any more in the Olympics. I think now you have six or seven teams that can win it."
It was Stastny's way of sending Varlamov a sympathy card.
Dear Varly: Russia might never forgive you. Come back to Colorado, where folks still love you.