Epic fail: Russia won't medal as Finland wins quarterfinal game
Don't call it an upset.
The host Russians may have been favored coming into today's winner-take-all quarterfinal game against Finland, but their 3-1 loss shouldn't surprise any student of hockey history.
Russia came into this tournament with the greatest individual players but, as has been the case for nearly two decades, something less than a great team. Meanwhile, the Finns -- who have more hockey medals in the NHL/Olympic era than any other nation -- proved to be better than the sum of their parts, as they almost always do. They're dedicated to their system, inherently selfless and ruthlessly opportunistic, which is why a team that came into this game missing its top three centers is advancing to a semifinal meeting with its eternal rival, Sweden.
And now the Russians are left to ponder how the one medal they so desperately wanted slipped out of their grasp.
Here are the three key reasons:
Defense: Team Russia's glaring weakness on paper was finally and fully exposed today. As a group, the blueliners' reads were poor and they lacked mobility. Anton Belov and Nikita Nikitin in particular were wildly overmatched, with Nikitin memorably being turned inside out on Juhamatti Aaltonen's game-tying goal. Slava Voynov, arguably Russia's best defenseman, coughed up the puck a few minutes later, leading to Teemu Selanne's game-winning goal. A tripping call on Alexei Emelin led to Mikael Granlund's back-breaking goal that gave Finland a 3-1 lead.
Shots: The wrong kind of shots: This is something That Team Canada needs to keep in mind later today against Latvia. Russia outshot the Finns 38-22, including 14-5 in a desperate third period, but rarely tested Tuukka Rask.
The Finns swarmed the middle of the ice, consistently limiting the Russians to low-percentage chances from the outside. Team Russia's unwillingness to pay the price down low cost it the game.
Ovechkin missing in action: Alex Ovechkin came into the tournament hungering for his close-up, but outside of some Coke machines and billboards, he was invisible in Sochi. After netting Russia's opening goal of the tournament, the NHL's leading goal scorer failed to light the lamp the rest of the way. His insistence on playing on the right side, instead of on the left where he's enjoyed so much success over the last year in Washington, might have had something to do with that.
Playing him on a line with Evgeni Malkin also seemed to diminish both players. Their style conflicted rather than meshed, and neither seemed up to the challenge of battling through Finland's relentless checking ... much the same way the two folded in the face of Canada's defensive pressure in 2010.
Credit is due: On a day when everything went wrong for Russia, it's worth noting the one thing that went right. Pavel Datsyuk, despite skating on one leg, was at his slithery best today in a performance that evoked memories of Bobby Orr in the 1976 Canada Cup. The captain led by example, but his teammates didn't follow.