Finland Tops Russia, Ends Host's Medal Dreams
SOCHI -- The anticipation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics began for Russian hockey players years ago, probably the day this small city on the Black Sea was awarded the Olympics on July 4, 2007.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has been an official ambassador for the event and became the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch in Greece on its way here. His face is on soda machines throughout Olympic Park.
This was not the way this tournament was supposed to play out for Ovechkin and the Russian hockey team.
Using its trademark suffocating defense and an offensive duo consisting of the oldest player in the tournament and one of the team's youngest, Finland stunned Russia and the 11,654 in attendance at Bolshoy Ice Dome with a 3-1 victory in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
"It sucks," Ovechkin said. "That's all I can say."
The undermanned Finns are missing their top four centers but they will play rival Sweden in the semifinals Friday and are guaranteed to play for a medal this weekend.
For the Russians, the inquisition about what happened here and how a team so talented could not score when it needed to most has just begun.
"Can't say right now," Russia captain Pavel Datsyuk said. "It's really emotional. We need to sit down and think about this one."
The Russians managed three goals in three games against the "big seven" teams in this tournament. They scored twice in a 3-2 shootout loss to the United States and were held without a goal in a 1-0 shootout victory against Slovakia before netting one against Finland.
Datsyuk scored twice against the Americans. Ilya Kovalchuk had the goal against the Finns. Two of the three were on the power play.
Offensive depth and the overall strength of the defense corps were considered potential problems before the tournament, but this type of power outage from some of hockey's biggest stars could not have been predicted.
"It's difficult to explain why we didn't score," Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said. "Especially with the players who score a lot of goals for their teams; especially Alex Ovechkin, who scored over 40 goals for his team."
"They gave few chances," Datsyuk said. "We need to score, couldn't score. Hard to win when we don't score many goals."
While Finland is missing several key players, the team's ability to prevent goals remains world-class. The Finns held Canada to two goals in a 2-1 overtime loss in the final game of the preliminary round and frustrated the talented Russians with their ability to break up long outlet passes and constrict Russia's ability to create space in the offensive zone.
"Nobody really believes in us," Finland captain Teemu Selanne said. "They played four games in five nights and we tried to make that our advantage. I think that's what happened. It's a big day for us."
Kovalchuk put Russia in front with a power-play goal at 7:51 of the opening period. Datsyuk had the puck in the right circle and found Kovalchuk for a blistering one-timer from the top of the circles for his third goal of the tournament.
Juhamatti Aaltonen got the Finns even 87 seconds later with a brilliant individual move. He turned Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin inside-out near the goal line and then tucked a shot off Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov and in for his first of the Olympics at 9:18.
"We have done this a couple times but it was great timing for that move," Aaltonen said. "I think we can say this is a big steal. We knew that we could challenge them. If we can play defense well we can play a good game and they're going to get frustrated and we're going to get some chances."
Selanne gave the Finns the lead at 17:38 of the first. Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov failed to stop the puck along the right wall and Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund blew past him to retrieve it and set up a 2-on-1. Granlund fed Selanne, who muffed the shot but it still slid between Varlamov's legs.
It was the 43-year-old Selanne's second of the tournament and set a new record for oldest goal scorer in the Olympics, a mark Selanne had set five days earlier with a goal against Norway.
Granlund scored a power-play goal to make it 3-1 in the second period. Alexei Emelin was in the box for tripping Finland's Lauri Korpikoski when Granlund steered the rebound of a Selanne shot past Varlamov at 5:37.
Bilyaletdinov did not pull Varlamov immediately after the goal but essentially sent Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to the bullpen to stretch and get ready. He made the change a few moments later after a stoppage in play.
Bobrovsky made a few spectacular saves in the third period while the team was pushing for a comeback.
"I just feel empty. Nothing," Bobrovsky said. "We're all disappointed and empty inside."
The Russian offense came to life in the second half of the second period and generated several quality scoring chances. Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask is the second layer of defense for the Finns and he stonewalled the Russians when he needed to.
Finland has won a medal three times in the four Olympics since the NHL began sending players. No other country has more than two.
"We believed in ourselves. That's the biggest thing," Granlund said. "We knew how we had to play to win this game and we executed. We had to play good defense and play with emotion and stick together and that's our game. That's how we have to succeed."
When the final buzzer sounded the reaction from the Russian-dominated crowd was pretty muted. There were whistles of displeasure but nothing extreme. People seemed more stunned than anything.
Patrons who left through the gate on the back side of Bolshoy were met by a metaphor.
The view from the outdoor concourse is majestic, and just minutes after Russia's dreams of a medal in men's hockey were dashed the sun set on a place that at times has felt like paradise.
"To be honest I am a little bit sad for them," Selanne said of the Russian players. "They had a big dream to win the gold medal here and it doesn't work. It is kind of disappointing in many ways because that would be a great story. It is proving to the hockey world that you never know. The gap is so small with these teams."