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The 2014 Olympics were, according to Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin, a $50-billion investment in a single result – men’s Olympic hockey. Ovechkin delivered the line, in the mixed zone, prior to the start of the men’s hockey tournament, and he had a smile on his face when he did it. A joke. Sort of.
All was sweetness and light that day, the Russians having assembled one of their strongest teams in decades. Hopes were high, expectations through the roof.
But it all came crashing down Wednesday, when Russia lost in the quarter-finals to Finland by a 3-1 score, exiting the tournament in exactly the same round as they did four years ago in Vancouver. The Russian NHL players made competing in these Olympics a priority almost from the moment they lost in Canada. Ovechkin promised to play, whether the NHL agreed to participate or not. The owner of the Washington Capitals, Ted Leonsis, said he could go with his blessing.
The Russians took a 1-0 lead in the game, but couldn’t hold onto it. Finland scored twice in the first period go ahead 2-1, and then added a pivotal power-play goal in the second, Mikael Granlund flipping a rebound past Russian starting goaltender Sergei Varlamov to give the Finns a two-goal cushion.
In the third, coach Zinetula Bilyeletdinov shortened his bench to his stars more of a chance to close the gap, but nothing seemed to work. Evgeni Malkin had a couple of decent chances, and Ovechkin started firing from everywhere when things started to get desperate.
But the Finns held their composure, despite some provocation. Olli Jokinen took a stick in the face from Ilya Kovalchuk, opening up a cut on his chin. Minutes later, Nikolai Kulemin was lucky to get off with a boarding minor for clobbering the Finns’ Sam Vatanen from behind into the boards. In the NHL, Brendan Shanahan’s department would have had him on the carpet.
"We're big believers that at the end of the day it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, where you've been playing, how your season's been going, once you put the jersey on there is the pride and there is a price to pay," Jokinen said. "And we've been able to do that year after year."
The Russians haven't always figured that out. Once the Russian players started to go all lone wolf on them, the Finns knew they had them.
"Oh, absolutely, absolutely," said Jokinen. "For us when you see them lining it up, and one guy tries to beat four guys, or they're making stretch passes, that's exactly what we want."
What Russia’s result – and a lot of others in the tournament - proves is that in a single-elimination format, anything is possible. The Russians never really got in sync during the Olympics, their best showing coming in a shootout loss to the Americans on Sunday, a result that obliged them to play an extra qualification round game Tuesday, where they defeated Norway but in singularly unimpressive fashion.
Russia’s high-end players rank with the best in the world, but the talent falls on the bottom end of the roster and when players such as Ovechkin couldn’t find their offensive stride in the tournament, there really wasn’t anybody there to pick them up.
Ovechkin told Russian television: "It sucks, what can I say. No emotions right now.
"We had a good start, scored a power-play goal, felt pretty good. But we made two mistakes that cost us the game. We tried to score another one, but despite all we tried, we couldn''t score."
Bilyeletdinov will likely bear the brunt of the blame for the loss, and he was mostly at a loss to explain what went wrong, beginning with the fact that his team really struggled to score goals in the tournament.
"It’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score, especially the players who usually score a lot in their games, especially Alexander Ovechkin, who scored over 40 goals," said Bilyetledinov, through an interpreter. "I cannot explain so far."
Kovalchuk had the first-period goal for the Russian, but Juhamatti Aaltonen and the ageless Teemu Selanne erased that lead. Selanne had become the oldest player to score a goal in Olympic history five days ago, and he tweaked that record with what turned out to be the winning goal.
"You've got to believe and this is a perfect example," said Selanne, the Finnish team captain. "We knew that they played four games in five nights, we knew that we were going to have a little more energy. In these kind of games, the gap is not very big. Who usually has more fresh legs has an advantage. It's a good feeling. You know that nobody ever believed that we could win but it doesn't matter. The experts are wrong many times. We have to believe in our team."
It isn’t clear what the long-term implications for Russian hockey of this setback will be. If they had played well up until this point and just had an off night, it might be one thing. But they were listless and unfocused throughout and when they had opportunities, Rask was there with the answers.
"The emotion we feel now is disappointment," said Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk. "Disappointment that we didn't live up to the hopes placed on us ... The boys did all they could today."
Datsyuk didn't think the pressure had anything to do with the results, noting that once the tournament began, “we forget pressure and just do what we can do.”
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovski, who replaced starter Semyon Varlamov after the latter gave up three goals, described the feeling as “disappointing and empty inside.”
Could Bobrovski imagine that Russia’s tournament could end like this?
“No, never. Never thought about it.”
It was a different feeling on the other side, the Finnish players jubilant about the victory over one of their long-standing rivals.
“Always beating Russia is a big thing,” said Finnish defenceman Olli Maatta, an NHL teammate to Malkin in Pittsburgh. “It’s almost been kind of a neighbour thing. It’s always big. We know they’re good. They are great players. They have a lot of the world’s best players, so it’s a big thing to beat them.”
Maatta and the rest of the Finnish defence corps did a good job of frustrating Russia’s snipers.
“We played as a team. We defended as a team pretty well. We played a pretty complete game. There were a couple of shifts where we were a little, how do you say, kind of shaky, but we didn’t get nervous. We just stayed calm and tried to play our game.”
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