Russia's flame blown out
Indomitable Finns chase Varlamov, beat hosts, 3-1
Finland will advance to the semi-final where it will face arch-rival Sweden on Friday. Russia's highly-hyped quest for the gold on home ice is over in yet another crushing disappointment.
"It sucks. What more can I say?" said Russia's NHL megastar Alexander Ovechkin. "We had a good start, scored a power-play goal, and felt pretty good. But we made two mistakes. That's the game. We tried to tie but we couldn't score. Nothing. No emotion right now."
Finland has now defeated Russia a stunning five times out of seven in the Olympics, going back to 1994, the first Games in which Russia competed under its current flag. This time, they did it by matching Russia’s pace and victimizing the hosts’ fourth line. The goalie Semyon Varlamov was pulled less than seven minutes into the second, after surrendering three goals on 15 shots.
"That's the way we need to play to be successful in this tournament," said Finland's Jussi Jokinen. "Sometimes it's not pretty but that's always been our strength, it's about team defence and the way we can play as a team. There are no individuals, just a team."
Varlamov got his third start of the Olympics the day after Sergei Bobrovski led Russia to a shutout win over Norway in the Qualification Playoff. The move was consistent with what head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov has been saying all along. Namely, that Russia doesn’t really have a No. 1 goalie and is prepared to rotate their two NHL stars for as long as it’s feasible. The necessity presented itself in the first period, after Varlamov, clearly frustrated, was pulled in favor of Bobrovski.
"It's an amazing feeling", said defenceman Sami Vatanen. "If we stick together and play tight defence, we knew we could win. We weren't the favourites, but we played as a team. We showed that we can score some goals as well."
"It’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score especially the players who usually score on their teams like Alexander Ovechkin who scored over 40 goals. I cannot explain it," said head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. "I apologize to the fans for our result. It was an unfortunate game for us. It’s an unpleasant situation. I cannot say anything bad about the players. They wanted to win so much but unfortunately there were some individual mistakes made and certainly we needed to score more."
Contrary to expectations, the game was not either slow as boring as the Finns, despite their injury-depleted offence, appeared to be ready and willing to skate with the Russian superstars. The first two periods were rather wide-open affairs, with plenty of scoring chances on both ends, before Finland predictably bottled up in the third, sitting on a two-goal lead.
Russia’s first scoring chance came courtesy of the fourth line, which would go on to have a brutal game. Alexei Tereshenko fed Vladimir Tarasenko from behind net, but the St. Louis Blues’ forward shot it from the crease straight into Tuukka Rask’s pads.
The Finns’ first opportunities came courtesy of Ilya Kovalchuk’s interference penalty three minutes into the game. Suomi’s power line of Selanne, Jarkko Immonen and Granlund buzzed around the Russian net and Immonen shot from close quarters only to be denied by Varlamov, sliding to his right.
But it was Russia who pounced on its first power play chance, after Mikael Granlund went off for giving a bear hug to Yevgeni Medvedev behind the Russian net seven minutes in. Pavel Datsyuk, who has been Russia’s best player in the tournament, sent a beautiful pass to Kovalchuk, parked between the hashmarks, and the resulting shot was an absolute missile, going over Rask’s shoulder and sending the water bottle flying.
The goal, the explosion of screams in the building, the wild celebration by Kovalchuk, who went hopping to the boards howling in delight – all seemed to be going Russia’s way. But the Finns never blinked.
The celebrating 11,654-spectators-strong crowd was duly silenced a minute and a half later, after Juhamatti Aaltonen deked Nikita Nikitin half way out of his skates, closed in on Varlamov from the right side and shot the puck right through the goalie. With Varlamov sliding over on one pad to cover the corner, the puck hit him in the midsection and slithered into a tiny space between his arm and his body.
With the score tied, it was the Datsyuk line, the only unit that consistently gave Russia its offensive spark throughout the tournament, that tried to answer the call. Even on a penalty kill, Alexander Radulov sustained his high-octane pace and created and offensive rush, breaking into the zone, suddenly curling and sending a pretty backhand pass to Alexei Yemelin. The defenceman’s shot, however, went wide.
The game-deciding moment came in the 18th minute, and once again it was against Russia’s fourth line, though this time a defensive error was to blame. Vyacheslav Voinov lost the puck at Finland’s blue line, then lost the race to Granlund. The Minnesota Wild’s budding star broke into the zone, held a perfect pause that sent defenceman Andrei Markov sliding past him, and dished the puck off to Selanne, who one-timed it under the sprawling Varlamov.
Far from being shell-shocked, the Datsyuk line kept pressing in the second period. The centre’s beautiful dangle and a long backhanded pass sent Radulov to a semi-breakaway, but the CSKA Moscow star missed the hopping puck as he was trying to shoot to the far corner.
The Malkin line, even though its two big superstars never really meshed throughout their stay in Sochi, gave it a valiant effort as well. Early in the second, Alexander Popov sent a saucer pass to Ovechkin, but the one-time shot went right into Finland’s coat of arms on Rask’s chest.
It was another defensive misque that led to Finland’s third goal. Alexei Yemelin, tangled up with Lauri Korpikoski in front of Rask’s goal, tripped up his opponent, and went down bleeding as Korpikoski’s flailing stick hit his face. With Ovechkin in the box serving the injured Yemelin’s penalty, it was the 43-year-old Selanne and Granlund who put the game away.
Selanne semi-whiffed on his shot attempt, but Granlund picked the puck up in the crease and quickly snuck it in behind Varlamov. One shift later, Varlamov, who appeared to be crestfallen after the third goal, was pulled for Bobrovski.
The goalie change, however, did not do the trick for the increasingly desperate Russians.
The Finns had effectively won the game on the next two shifts, when the flurry of activity from the Malkin and Anisimov lines failed to yield the result for the home team. Syomin had the best chance of all, but his breakaway shot was beautifully saved by Rask, who went down on his side to deflect the puck with his body.
"Rask is a good goalie but we made it easy," said Russia's captain Pavel Datsyuk. "We didn't get enough traffic on the net and we didn't shoot enough."
With the fourth line benched, the Russians pressing and the Finns in a defensive shell, the third period was predictably one-sided, but try as they could, the hosts simply weren’t able to break the Suomi defense and Rask’s brilliant, acrobatic goaltending. The closest they came was during a third-period power play, after Kovalchuk sent the puck to the crease. With Rask on his side once again, Radulov dove for the rebound, but didn’t push the puck through.
"We had Tuukka Rask, that's why we won," said Jori Lehtera.
As the realization of the inevitable set in, the Russian crowd was mostly silent in the last ten minutes of the third period. The Finns have proven to be Russia’s worst nightmare again.
"Empty," was the only word Datsyuk uttered when asked how he felt.