Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Oh Russia...


SOCHI, Russia — The Russian men’s hockey players were put forward as the host country’s most important entry in the Sochi Olympics, the only team that really mattered to many here. No one will ever know for sure the pressure they faced, only the humiliating ending they encountered.

Russia was holding its collective breath with this team, and was prepared to keep holding it through the gold medal game on Sunday, the grand finale before the closing ceremony. Instead, all the air was let out in the most dispiriting way on Wednesday, in a 3-1 loss to Finland in the quarterfinals. They did not get close.

Russia also struggled in the preliminary round, losing to the United States in a shootout. The Russians then had to play a qualification game, against Norway, to reach the quarterfinals. None of their games inspired much confidence.

It was always gold medal or bust for the Russians, who for the past 22 years, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, have endured teams that looked strong on paper but could not find their way to a gold medal.

MEN’S TOURNAMENT ICE HOCKEY
Quarterfinal 2
Team 1 2 3 Score
 Finland 2 1 0 3
 Russia 1 0 0 1

Between 1956, when it made its ice hockey debut, and the breakup in 1991, the Soviet Union won the Olympic gold in seven of nine appearances. In 1992, a unified team composed of the splintered Soviet republics also won. In the five Winter Games since, Russia has won two medals; a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002.

The pressure on the men to win an independent Russia’s first gold medal on home soil was greater than anything faced by the United States in 2002 or Canada in 2010.

“Our fans are a little bit tougher, I think,” Sergei Fedorov, a forward on the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams, said recently. “They don’t like when the national team loses.”

A few weeks before the Sochi Games, Teemu Selanne conceded that the Finnish team he would be captaining was not the most talented in the tournament. In a best-of-seven series, Selanne said, Finland would be hard-pressed to defeat Russia, Canada or the United States, the pre-Games favorites.

“But in one game,” he said, “I like our chances against anybody.”

At 43, Selanne is the wise old lion of the Finnish team, a six-time Olympian who kept retirement at bay so he could have one more shot at an elusive gold medal. On Wednesday, Selanne was the better, more energetic No. 8 on the ice, outplaying his supremely skilled but strangely silent counterpart, Alex Ovechkin.

Selanne scored the go-ahead goal, fittingly on Finland’s eighth shot, with 2 minutes 22 seconds remaining in the first period, on a pass from the left circle by Mikael Granlund. He picked up the first assist on the third, feeding Granlund on a power play in the sixth minute of the second.

Granlund’s goal came after the Russians’ missed a couple sterling scoring opportunities. The forward Alexander Radulov, who has been in and out of favor with his coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, whiffed on a shot on a breakaway and Ovechkin, who had not scored since his first shift of these Games, fired a close-range shot that the Finnish goaltender, Tuukka Rask, stopped with his right pad.

Ilya Kovalchuk, the former N.H.L. player who returned to Russia to play for the Kontinental Hockey League team in St. Petersburg, opened the scoring with a power-play goal in the eighth minute of the first, his one-timer beating Rask on the stick side.

Less than two minutes later, the Finns’ Juhamatti Aaltonen tied the scored – and quieted the crowd – with an attempt from the left circle, Finland’s favored shooting spot, that beat Sergei Bobrovsky on his stick side.

The Russians, or at least their news media, knew better than to take Finland lightly. The Finns are 4-2 against Russia in Olympic competition, a statistic one reporter alluded to when he asked Bilyaletdinov pointedly the night before the game: “The Finnish team is an inconvenient rival to us. The statistics show that. Have you analyzed what we should do to take advantage of our strong side and their weaknesses?”

Bilyaletdninov’s short answer then was that the Russians’ best scorers, led by Ovechkin, had to keep putting shots on the net. After his first-shift goal in Russia’s opener against Slovakia, Ovechkin was scoreless on his next 23 shots.

Rask, the Boston Bruins goalie, made big save after big save, and the Finnish defense was stout in front of him to keep the Russians, and their fans, from getting back into the game. It all transpired as Selanne had predicted last month when he said, “The Olympics is a bigger ice surface and it’s only 10 days. In that short time it’s going to be who finds the little things or whose system is better.”

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