The Russian men's hockey team entered its qualification round game against Norway as a heavy favorite on home ice, and it did enough to advance to the quarterfinals with a 4-0 win at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Alexander Radulov paced the Russians with three points on the night, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky posted a 22-save shutout on the heels of Semyon Varlamov's shutout against Slovakia in their group-stage finale.
Russia will next take on a tough Finnish team in the quarterfinals, according to James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail:
So first seeded Sweden gets Slovenia in quarter-finals. Fourth seeded Finland gets Russia. One sign that the round robin matters! #Sochi2014— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 18, 2014
Russia doesn't exactly enter the quarters in top form, but it was good enough to defeat Norway on Tuesday. The level of competition only gets more difficult as the tournament progresses, however, and that starts with Finland on Wednesday.
Norway entered Tuesday's game at an immediate disadvantage. The Norwegians' only NHL player is New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, but the skilled speedster was forced to sit out against Russia with a hand injury, per Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo! Sports:
Mats Zuccarello is out of the game against Russia for Norway with a hand injury.— Dmitry Chesnokov (@dchesnokov) February 18, 2014
Regardless of Zuccarello's status, Norway's plan going into the game was likely the same either way. Few teams can match the Russians' skill level, so Norway attempted to turn it into a muddled, defensive contest in hopes of lulling Russia to sleep.
That strategy certainly appeared to work in the first period. Although Russia definitely had the more dangerous chances, it ended up with just seven shots to Norway's six. Russia didn't look like a team stacked with talented players such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, and Dan Rosen of NHL.com didn't like what he saw from the host country in the opening stanza:
OK, gotta go cover U.S. practice. Thoroughly unimpressed by Russia so far today. Finished first 0-0 against Norway, 7-6 edge in shots.— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) February 18, 2014
Norway actually had a couple solid scoring opportunities late in the period, including a shot from Anders Bastiansen in the slot, but Bobrovsky was up to the task. Russian fans had to be disappointed with the 0-0 score after one, but it could have been worse had Bobrovsky faltered.
Russia opened the second period with more energy, and it was quickly rewarded for that. Just over four minutes into the period, forward Alexander Radulov went blistering behind the Norwegian net and sent a backhand to the goalmouth.
Thanks to a little bit of good fortune, the shot deflected off Norwegian defenseman Jonas Holos and past goalie Lars Haugen to give Russia a 1-0 lead. According to Mike Brehm of USA Today, that marker helped lessen some of the tension that had overtaken Bolshoy Ice Dome:
Radulov puts on a display of speed and scores off a defenseman's skate. Sensed some relief among the cheers in the crowd. 1-0 Russia.— Mike Brehm (@ByMikeBrehm) February 18, 2014
Russia continued to carry play for much of the period following Radulov's opening goal. The Russians outshot Norway by a fairly substantial margin and dominated puck possession as well. That eventually paid off, and it was Radulov who served as the spark plug once again.
With less than three minutes remaining in the period, Radulov put a backhand on goal, and a fortuitous bounce put the puck right on Ilya Kovalchuk's stick. The former NHL star made no mistake as he tucked it past Haugen and put Russia in firm control, per Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun:
Kovalchuk gives Russia a 2-0 lead and Bolshoy Arena goes nuts. Finally a little breathing room on the way to Olympic QF.— Rob Longley (@longleysunsport) February 18, 2014
After building a two-goal cushion, Russia largely seemed content to hold the lead in the third period. Norway kept things even in terms of shots on goal in the closing frame, but it didn't have many quality chances.
Russia did have one glorious opportunity in the third as Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin found himself in a breakaway situation, but he was hauled down from behind. There was no penalty shot call let alone a penalty of any kind, which caused Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com to bash the officiating:
No penalty call on that Alex Ovechkin breakaway is something the Russians should be annoyed about. Terribly bad officiating— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) February 18, 2014
Poor officiating has been a big topic of conversation in Sochi, particularly since Russia's 3-2 shootout loss to Team USA in group play. While the merits of Russia's disallowed goal in that game can be debated, Ovechkin clearly seemed to deserve a penalty shot against Norway.
Although the game was already decided, Russia did manage to pot a pair of goals in the final two minutes of the game.
The first came during an empty-net situation with Radulov scoring his second of the night, according to Tom Gulitti of The Record:
Deserved empty-netter for Radulov makes it 3-0.— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) February 18, 2014
Russia followed that up with an exclamation point less than 30 seconds later. With Haugen back between the pipes for Norway, KHL star Alexei Tereshchenko netted Russia's fourth and final goal of the game.
Even with Russia's victory on Tuesday, plenty of question marks remain. The team still hasn't played to its full potential in these Games, and Russian fans have to be wondering if this is as good as it is going to get in Sochi.
One of the biggest reasons for Russia's struggles has been the mediocre play of the aforementioned Ovechkin. As the NHL's goal-scoring leader, huge things were expected of Ovechkin at the Olympics, but he hasn't hit his stride for whatever reason.
Since scoring Russia's first goal of the tournament against Slovenia, "The Great Eight" has been unable to find the back of the net despite a high volume of shots.
Perhaps the pressure of being the driving force behind Russia's gold-medal hopes on home ice is getting to Ovechkin. Legendary Russian defenseman Slava Fetisov laid out the scenario facing Ovechkin prior to the start of the Olympics, per Longley.
He has to understand he could be a national hero and it could also be a national shame. That is the pressure of home ice in the hockey tournament ... It is the price every superstar has to pay and that is what separates the winners from the losers. If you can handle the pressure and put your priorities in the right direction, you can be a winner.
Anything less than gold in men's hockey is usually considered a failure in Russia, and that has been ratcheted up even more due to the fact that Russia hasn't won Olympic gold since the Unified Team topped the podium in 1992.
How will the Russian men's hockey team ultimately fare in Sochi?
Add in the pressure of playing in Russia, and maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise that Ovechkin is scuffling and seemingly overcome with frustration.
With that said, a player like Ovechkin can explode at any time. He still has an opportunity to be a hero for Russia, and it starts in the quarterfinals against Finland.
Russia will be favored in that game, but it won't be a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination. Finland has plenty of NHL talent, and it was able to push Canada to overtime during group play. Finland plays a strong defensive game and will rely on goalie Tuukka Rask, which could give Russia some problems.
The Russians have actually found a way to win tightly contested, defensive games in this tournament thus far, but that still isn't their forte.
The Finns always seem to find their way onto the podium at the Olympics, having won a medal in four of the past five of them. Most observers would probably call it an upset, but based on Russia's current form, Finland's chances of ousting the host nation are actually quite good.
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