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There were so many expectations on this team – probably too many – with even Russian president Vladimir Putin calling for hockey gold right at the outset of the Games.
But the reality was always that Russia had only the fourth best roster coming in.
And the plucky Finnish team they ran up against and eventually lost to in Wednesday’s quarter-final had the fifth.
You can point the finger in a lot of different ways here, starting with a coaching staff that seemed overwhelmed once the Finns took a 3-1 lead, but Russia’s early elimination likely comes back to one simple thing.
The blueline wasn’t nearly of the calibre of the other hockey powers (Canada, Sweden and the U.S.) and it cost them at both ends of the ice.
Consider the quarter-final game alone. The top Russian defenceman in minutes played was KHLer Yevgeni Medvedev, who was paired with Montreal Canadiens blueliner Alexei Emelin. Andrei Markov and Slava Voynov made up the rest of the top four (and looked particularly bad on the Finns second goal by Teemu Selanne) while the other three defencemen were Anton Belov, Nikita Nikitin and Fedor Tyutin.
It’s not a murderers’ row of top talent, by any means, and that lack of prowess on the back end is something that’s been evident for years on Russian world junior teams. Despite producing incredible world-class stars like Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin up front, Russia has had issues doing the same on defence for quite some time, something that has been the primary contributor to going medal-less the last three Olympics.
Consider for one that there are only four Russian defencemen playing a regular top four role in the NHL this season, and only Markov is in the top 80 in even strength ice time per game.
Another, Dmitry Kulikov, wasn’t named to the Olympic team.
There were other roster oddities in the tournament and Wednesday’s game, too, with Ilya Kovalchuk playing more than four more minutes than Ovechkin against the Finns, Alexander Popov playing wing on a key second line with Ovechkin and Malkin, and Semyon Varlamov starting after last year’s Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky had been so solid in key games.
Rob Rossi, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, tweeted after the game that there had been friction between the NHL stars and the coaching staff, including over issues such as bias towards KHL players.
Russian coach Zinetula "Bill" Bilyaletdinov then appeared to throw Ovechkin under the bus in his postgame press conference, saying he couldn’t understand why he had scored only one goal.
Whatever dysfunction was there obviously didn’t help, and highlights the difficulties faced in integrating players from the two very different leagues in such a short, high pressure event.
But a large part of what happened Wednesday was also what makes the Olympics such a crazy tournament, where any team can lose its first or second game against a top country and be eliminated, just four or five games in.
Recall that Russia was a disallowed goal away from beating the Americans in the round robin, which could have allowed them to avoid the Finns in the quarter-finals, which could have then in turn likely allowed them an easier route to going deeper in this tournament.
Lose in the semi-finals and play for bronze, and the Russians tournament isn’t branded nearly the disaster this one will be.
In the end, it came down to a few careless mistakes that the Finns took advantage of, and the underdogs deserve full credit for realizing how to fully exploit Russia’s weaknesses. They were outshot 38-22 overall, but Finland has a huge equalizer in goal in Tuukka Rask (or their other two guys) and only needed to push the pace to get the two goal lead only 25 minutes in.
Talent-wise, they weren’t that far behind Russia, minus a few of the top end scorers, none of whom – outside of perhaps captain Pavel Datsyuk – had a very impressive tournament under the weight of expectations.
But tactics-wise, the Finns looked the far superior team.
That’s at the heart of the problem for Russia, along with their woes on the blueline and how to integrate their NHL and domestic league talents, which is another area Finland has excelled in.
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