2014 Sochi Men's Hockey Quarterfinals: Finland Dominates Russia, Sends Host Home

Mark SchipperContributor IIIFebruary 19, 2014

Finland forward Juhamatti Aaltonen, right, and Russia forward Valeri Nichushkin react after Finland scored a goal in the first period of a men's quarterfinal ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

It was fitting that with their goalie pulled and the puck waiting at the front of the net, Alexander Radulov and the Russians were thrice denied by Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask.

The quarterfinal game ended in a 3-1 Russian loss that cut the host team loose from the Sochi Olympics and advanced Finland to one of Friday's semifinals to play Sweden. No matter what happens there, they will play again Saturday or Sunday for a chance to win a medal.

You felt an uncomfortable sense of betrayal when you looked at Russian Savior Vladimir Putin—the president who has ruled or co-ruled the country for the last 14 years—sulking in his luxury suite as the pride of his nation was worn out by its small Scandinavian neighbor to the northwest.

Putin has made himself the ubiquitous, strange, semi-sinister and unsmiling face of Russia; the first man to take shape in your mind—for good or ill—when you think of an otherwise dynamic country of musicians, writers and athletes. He said before the games that, for his country, hockey is the only medal that really matters.

Russia's concept of global politics and national pride had once again directed all the pressure to its hockey team to stand in for the greatness of the country and—for the third Olympic games in a row—it finished without a medal of any kind.

An impression formed during this tournament commensurate with miserable expectations of the Soviet and Unified Team eras—when Russia sent hardened professionals to play against amateurs and won eight gold medals—which were lousy with pressure, and then just like that, they were finished.

The critical difference now is that every nation uses its professionals, and Russia's skaters in any given Olympics are about as talented as those of any other great hockey nation. It is how they are coached and how they play that makes the difference. 

NBC analyst Mike Milbury did not think Russia felt the pressure of the moment enough.

"[The Russian effort] cost them a hockey game and it should cost them their egos," said Milbury on the post-game broadcast. "I don't think they came together and I never saw the effort from this team."

But far more accurate in terms of narrative than the negative angle of Russia failing is the fact that Finland, once again, has built a superb national hockey team.

Today it was their country of 6.5 million—the 2006 silver and 2010 bronze-medalists—against the mighty 143 million souls of Russian Motherland. For added weight there were the political history—the armies and occupations behind it—and for a setting they had the world's greatest hockey tournament staged deep in the heart of the Russian Realm.

Finland was simply a much better team. Their players sacrificed their bodies to block blast after Russian blast—stopping 14 shots from reaching their goalie in the last two periods alone. Their defense was tough, hitting where they could and disrupting Russia's wonderful offensive players on every quarter of the ice.

Forward Lauri Korpikoski personified that toughness when he took a slap-shot off the side of a skate that clearly hurt him. He limped through the end of his shift and to the bench, but was back on the ice without missing a shift. This was the Finnish team, a hardened bunch of battlers.

"We don't have that problem where we have a first line that has to play 25 minutes a game," said Finnish star Teemu Selanne. "We all accept our roles and know what we have to do and just believe. We know if we outwork the other team we have a good chance to win. Tonight's game was a perfect example."

Rask, the Boston Bruins' magnificent keeper during the NHL season, turned aside 37 of Russia's 38 shots on goal, allowing only one past him during a first period power play.

That Russian goal, its first and last, came at 7:51 of the first period and seemed to portend great feats. It was a beautiful goal executed by its two best players and the crowd at Bolshoy Ice Dome thundered like 1,000 freight trains. 

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Ilya Kovalchuk had worked free near the goal line and glided backwards, facing the net between the two faceoff circles. Pavel Datsyuk, the great on-ice artist and one of the finest hockey players on earth, sent a sharp pass from near the corner boards directly into Kovalchuk's wheelhouse. He clobbered a one-timer that zipped over Rask's shoulder and into the net, then broke off into a hopping, ecstatic celebration with the crowd.

Alexander Ovechkin, without a doubt an individual marvel of a player, did next to nothing for his country's team in this tournament, and today was an embodiment of all that futility. As the game ended he had one total goal for the tournament. Against Finland he managed three shots on net. In the first period he was blasted into the boards by Olli Jokinen.

"Ovechkin said he liked the pressure and loved all the eyes on him. Well, there are eyes all over the place here in Russia and he hasn't done anything since the first four minutes of the tournament," said Jeremy Roenick, television analyst for NBC. "It will probably be remembered as the biggest failure in Olympic history for Russia."

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Finland's first goal, the first period equalizer, was a true sign of things to come. Juhamatti Aaltonen collected the puck from a faceoff in Russia's zone, dangled beautifully along the bottom of the faceoff circle and stick-handled swiftly towards the goal crease in a few deft strides.

He put a sweeping, back-and-forth juke on Russian defenseman Nikita Nikitin and slipped the puck past goalie Semyon Varlamov. It was a 1-1 game—and Finland was just getting warmed up.

National hockey hero Selanne put his country ahead for good with 2:22 left in the first period. The play was set up by teammate Mikael Granlund, who collected the puck at the blue line after it had bounced over a Russian stick and made an end-to-end rush with it.

Granlund's shot on Varlamov bounced back out toward Selanne—the Finnish Flash—who turned on the afterburners to chase down the play and stuffed it in.

On the replay you could see Selanne calmly settle the puck between his skates before kicking it out to his stick and flicking it past the keeper. It was a high-skill goal that took the calm confidence and goal scorer's artistry that has made Selanne a legend both in the NHL and international hockey. 

These games mark Selanne's sixth Olympics, a period of 24 years when he has been the pride of Finland and a truly exquisite hockey player. At 43-years-old Selanne still has incredible speed, enough to blow by the youngest and fastest players of the next generation, and all the skill of a master goal-scoring craftsman that has made him the all-time Olympics points leader at 41.

"The way that he was stick-handling, [we] were sitting up here in awe at just watching him be able to beat guys and get around guys. The absolute hockey IQ that he possesses—he's gonna go down as one of the greatest players of all time," said Roenick post-game.

Now, Selanne has the experience and mindset to go along with all his talent, and he is an immense pleasure to watch. He is also acutely aware that his time on this stage is running thin.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

"The whole day I was thinking about that," said Selanne afterwards to analyst Pierre McGuire in the arena tunnel. "It might be my last one, but I told Kimmo Timonen afterwards, 'It's not over yet.' It's a great feeling, this national team has been so important to me. I'm so thankful that we have been able to play for our country, there's nothing better."

Granlund scored Finland's third goal on a power play in the second period. Selanne was directly involved once again. A one-timer that Selanne muffed near the slot had just reached Varlamov, when Granlund got it on his blade and slid it past the Russian goalie at 5:37. 

About eight minutes later, still trailing by two goals, the Russians revealed that a creeping sense of panic had entered their ranks. With a little under seven minutes to play in the period, they changed goalies—pulling Varlamov and replacing him with regular starter Sergei Bobrovsky.

Bobrovsky played an outstanding game the rest of the way. He made two spectacular saves in the third period—sprawling across the goal crease to kick-save a shot on each side—which would have put the game on ice for Finland. His effort was not enough, though, as the Russians failed to score again.

Though they had their chances, for Russia it was either one move too many, one pass too many or a brave Fin throwing his body in front of a hurtling puck. At one point, a gorgeous crossing pass from superstar Evgeni Malkin found Andrei Markov in the slot with a chance to score. Markov chose to pass to Radulov alongside the net but the Fins recovered and spilled Radulov before he could even shoot.

Later in the third period, Malkin was denied by Rask on a powerful, wide-open shot from the slot. Russia was thwarted at every opportunity.

At the end of the second period the Russians led the shots on goal tally 24-17, with many quality scoring chances, but the deep sense of frustration was obvious, as they strode to the locker room trailing Finland 3-1.

"It's a day of infamy for Russia," said Milbury. "They won't live this down for a long time."

Mysteriously, he said being knocked from the Russian Olympic games would not bother some players in the least, insinuating they would retreat to their money and their posh lifestyles and quickly forget anything so frivolous as losing a hockey game. But he cited Datsyuk and Kovalchuk by name, and said that things would be different for them.

"A loss like this lasts a lifetime. Some of those guys will be walking down the street in their hometown 10 years from now and wince at the memory of this one." 

Finland executed with a cool ease over three periods—calmly breaking the aggressive Russian forecheck, playing intelligently with the puck and never taking any foolish chances. They all sacrificed their bodies when it was called for, and did every little thing there is to do in a hockey game in order to win. 

This Nordic country, which counts hockey as its national sport, has earned its place in the semifinals. It is another chance—perhaps the last—to watch the Great Selanne play. For a hockey fan, the entire prospect is one to relish.