With the weight of a nation on its back, Team Russia was eliminated from the 2014 Winter Olympics after a stunning 3-1 defeat to Finland on Wednesday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi. Mikael Granlund and Teemu Selanne led the way for Finland, as Russia collapsed in what could go down as one of the more disappointing Olympic defeats in the nation's history.
Bolstered by a rowdy and intense home crowd, Russia took control of the game early with physical play and speed through the neutral zone and created numerous scoring chances against goaltender Tuukka Rask. Once again, Russia struggled to take advantage of several prime opportunities until a struggling power play finally cashed in when Ilya Kovalchuk's blast from the high slot slipped under the crossbar to give the host country a 1-0 lead.
The celebration was short-lived, however, when Juhamatti Aaltonen took the puck off the faceoff and walked around Nikita Nikitin to slip the puck past netminder Semyon Varlamov. The goal stole the momentum from Russia and Finland took control of the first period, again cashing in when Granlund outraced the Russia defense to feed Selanne for his 22nd career goal in the Olympics.
Finland then shocked the Bolshoy Ice Dome into stunned silence when Granlund would knock home a rebound while on the power play just under six minutes into the second period. The goal would knock Varlamov from the game. Russia had rolled with Varlamov in net on Wednesday despite the strong play and relatively easy game of Sergei Bobrovsky against Norway on Tuesday.
Varlamov finished with 12 saves on 15 shots in just under 26 minutes of play.
Too little, too late, Granlund's goal appeared to finally wake up the Russians, who steadily pressured Finland as the second period wore on. Taking advantage of the long change, Russia trapped the Finns for long periods of play yet was unable to take advantage of the chances that were finally created. Solving the defensive shell of Finland is tough alone, yet scoring on a focused and sharp Tuukka Rask proved nearly impossible.
Russia came out determined in the third period, but frustration led to more poor decisions and missed plays were too much to overcome in the end. Finland managed just two shots on goal in the third period yet never showed signs of cracking under increased pressure from Russia.
Many questions will be asked following this loss and early departure from the Olympics, most notably why the NHL stars on the roster struggled to produce when needed. The pairing of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin was supposed to be unstoppable, yet both combined for just two goals and three assists in five games -- with all of those points coming in the first game alone. Ovechkin's lone goal came less than two minutes into the first game, and he never appeared as dangerous as one would expect from the NHL's goal-scoring leader.
Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov also showed a penchant for shortening his bench significantly when games became tight, a strategy that might have backfired on Wednesday in the second game in two days. Russia appeared to run out gas when it was needed the most, and too many individual efforts were thwarted by the strong defensive shell of Finland.
The decision to start Varlamov will also be scrutinized, given the goaltender's struggles and the strong play of Sergei Bobrovsky in relief -- especially in the third period.
Tuukka Rask was nearly unbeatable, stopping 37 of 38 shots in the win, including several point-blank chances in the final minute.
In the end, poor roster construction -- the Russians were severely outmanned on the blueline -- and poor coaching led to another Russian team that became the sum of the individuals on the ice rather than a cohesive team. Finland will now move on to face Sweden in the semifinals for the chance to play for a medal. Russia has not won a medal since earning the bronze in 2002, and once again will head home empty-handed.