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Finland leaves Russia feeling “empty,” advances to semifinal showdown with Sweden
SOCHI, Russia — Pavel Datsyuk stood in front of a throng of reporters, his hair matted down by sweat and his eyes cast down by disappointment, and was asked what he was feeling inside just moments after Russia was knocked out of the Olympics in the quarterfinals with a 3-1 loss to Finland.
Datsyuk, a man of few words in English, only had one. And it said it all.
“Empty,” he said.
Russia’s loss wasn’t the least bit surprising. Finland, after all, was the higher seed. Finland, after all, had earned a medal in four of the last five Olympics. Finland, after all, only had two fewer NHL players than Russia. Finland, after all, had just taken mighty Canada to overtime in the final game of pool pay.
“Even though nobody ever picks us to win medals, we always seem to find a way to get there and win one,” said goaltender Tuukka Rask, who made 37 saves. “Guys trust each other and know the system well. That’s about it.”
So, no, this wasn’t shocking.
But it was jarring — to the tournament and the Sochi Games as a whole. The home team, under such incredible pressure to not only win a medal, but to win gold, was done. Already.
As Russian reporters scolded him for roster decisions and lineup choices, Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov apologized, singled out Alex Ovechkin for scoring just one goal, and insisted the Games were still a success, regardless of what the hockey team accomplished — or failed to accomplish. But he bristled at one reporter’s suggestion that what had just transpired was a “catastrophe.”
“Well, let’s not play word games,” he said through an interpreter. “I said it was unsuccessful. You can call it whatever.”
What it was, was another impressive performance for Finland, who will face rival Sweden in the semifinals on Friday. The Finns fell behind early on an Ilya Kovalchuk blast on a power play — one that sent Kovalchuk leaping into the air in delight and the fans at Bolshoy into delirium — but took control shortly after and never looked back. Juhamatti Aaltonen tied it up with a brilliant move around a hapless Nikita Nikitin less than two minutes after Kovalchuk’s goal. The ageless Teemu Selanne — in his sixth Olympics — scored the go-ahead goal later in the period when Mikael Granlund out-hustled Slava Voynov to a loose puck in the neutral zone to create the rush. Granlund added an insurance goal early in the second, and Rask and the Finnish defense shut the door from there.
While Russia’s defense faltered — clearly running out of gas in their fourth game in five days — Finland’s rose to the occasion, blocking shots with reckless abandon and sitting on the lead. Few teams have the international-size rinks figured out better than the Finns, who use the wide ice to their defensive advantage, forcing teams to the outside and clearing pucks away before opponents can get to them close to the net. The team game of the Finns beat the individual superstars of the Russians.
“Every time we go into tournaments like this we’re disrespected,” Olli Jokinen said. “But the good thing for our country, no matter what names are on the back, Finland’s going to play the same way no matter who we have here. We could have 20 different guys here and the results would be the same. Finland’s going to play Finland’s way.”
Ovechkin finished the tournament with one goal. Evgeni Malkin had none. Only Kovalchuk (three goals) and Pavel Datsyuk (two goals, four assists) came through for Russia in one of the biggest tournaments in its proud hockey history.
“It’s difficult to explain why we didn’t score, especially with the players who score a lot of goals for their teams, especially Alex Ovechkin, who scored over 40 goals for his team,” Bilyaletdinov said.
Said Ovechkin: “It sucks. What can I say?”
Up next for the Finns is Sweden, which put an end to Slovenia’s Cinderella run with a 5-0 rout. Henrik Lundqvist made 19 saves and Carl Hagelin had two goals in the easy win. Sweden is the top seed in the tournament, but hasn’t faced a terribly difficult road to the semifinals.
And while Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson sounded like a guy who wanted to play the Russians — “I love playing in front of a crowd that just hates you and boos you,” he said — he knows the step up in competition will require a step up in Sweden’s play.
“We have to play our best game of the tournament, definitely, to reach the finals,” Hjalmarsson said. “We have to play better than we’ve been so far in the tournament.”
Hawks center Marcus Kruger didn’t think the Swedes had played at their best yet
“I don’t hope so, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think we have more to come.”
Unlike the Russians, who are done. Earlier than they ever expected.
“I just feel empty,” said goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who relieved Semyon Varlamov after he allowed the first three goals. “Nothing. We’re all disappointed and empty inside.”