Finland eliminates Russia from medal contention in men's hockey
SOCHI, Russia -- The Russians dutifully shook the Finns' hands and then skated to the center of a rink built to showcase their return to Olympic hockey dominance. When they raised their sticks in a mournful salute, they got more whistles than cheers from their devastated fans.
Alex Ovechkin, captain Pavel Datsyuk and their teammates had nursed dreams about this week for several years -- all their lives, really.
They were all dashed in 60 frustrating minutes against Finland.
Russia crashed out of the Olympics in the quarterfinals Wednesday with a 3-1 loss, extending a historic hockey nation's gold-medal drought past 22 years and putting an enormous damper on the final days of the Sochi Games.
"Inside, I'm absolutely empty," Datsyuk said through a translator.
Teemu Selanne scored an early goal and Tuukka Rask made 37 saves as Finland crushed the Russians' plans to win hockey gold in front of their own fans for the first time. Russian and Soviet teams have won eight gold medals in hockey, but none since the Unified Team's victory in 1992.
Ovechkin, Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin all hailed Russia's home Olympics as the most important tournament of their careers, and President Vladimir Putin led the chorus of Russians hoping for another golden moment in Sochi. They'll likely have only bitter memories after losses to the United States and Finland, which left Russia out of the medals entirely for the third straight games.
"I can only apologize to the fans for the results," Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said. "It was unfortunate for us. Expectations were quite different. I can only say words of apology."
Despite its roster of high-priced offensive stars, Russia couldn't score in the final 52 minutes after Ilya Kovalchuk's early power-play goal. Russia pressed relentlessly and fruitlessly in the third period, but Rask stopped each of their 15 shots.
"To be honest, I'm a little bit sad, also, for them," said Selanne, a six-time Olympian. "Obviously, they had a big dream to win the gold medal here, and then it doesn't work, so it's kind of disappointing in many ways, because that would be a great story. But again, it's proving to the hockey world that you never know."
Ovechkin, the reigning NHL MVP and one of the Sochi Games' most public faces, failed to score another goal for Russia after scoring on his first shot just 1:17 into Russia's opener against Slovenia. Malkin, who dropped to one knee after the final horn, also didn't score a goal after the first 3:54 of the opener.
"We had a good start, score (on the) power play, feel pretty good," Ovechkin said. "Few mistakes cost us the game. We tried to score another one, but we didn't score. ... No emotion right now."
Selanne and Mikael Granlund each had a goal and an assist for the steady Finns, who overcame an early deficit and silenced the Bolshoy Ice Dome with two goals in the first period. Finland will face top-seeded Sweden in the semifinals on Friday.
Russia didn't play horribly in Sochi, winning three of its five games, but lost a painful eight-round shootout to the U.S. team before falling behind early and failing to catch up against steady Finland. The game was Russia's fourth in five days, thanks to a qualification-round game Tuesday, while Finland had the last two days off.
Semyon Varlamov allowed all three goals on 15 shots against the Finns before getting pulled for Sergei Bobrovsky during the second period.
"It's not necessary to say that the goalkeeper played bad," Russia defenseman Anton Belov said. "It was mistakes by the defense and team."
This Russian loss was the furthest thing from a Miracle on Ice. Juhamatti Aaltonen scored the first goal for Finland, the most consistent Olympic team in the last two decades with medals in four of the past five games.
Russian fans realized the importance and peril of this game, filling the Olympic Park early in the afternoon with cheers, chants and Russian flags. The Bolshoy crowd began chanting "Ro-ssi-ya!" even before pregame warm-ups, waving hundreds of flags and banners emblazoned with hometowns and slogans.
The tone was uncommonly intense from the opening faceoff. After Granlund took an early holding penalty, Datsyuk fed Kovalchuk for a hard shot over Rask's shoulder. Kovalchuk popped the water bottle off the top of Finland's net and celebrated with a two-footed leap into the air amid ecstatic cheers.
But moments later, Aaltonen made a beautiful move along the goal line, putting a shot under Varlamov's glove arm for the KHL forward's first goal in Sochi.
Bolshoy got quiet, and it became positively funeral-like late in the period when Granlund outskated Slava Voynov up the boards, broke past two defensemen and fed Selanne for the Finland captain's Olympic-record 22nd goal.
Finland scored again on the power play early in the second, with Granlund collecting Selanne's rebound and sliding in a backhand from a sharp angle for the final goal.
Dozens of fans lingered in their seats long after their team left, disconsolately folding their flags and staring at the ice. A few Finnish fans near center ice even went up to a group of Russian fans for a hug.
"It's a catastrophe," said Sergey Kazakov, a 58-year-old businessman from Moscow. "We've been preparing for the home games for seven years, and what? Just a group of stars, but no team and no result."