Winter Olympics 2014: Russia chokes on home soil, Finland moves on

Clive Mason

Finland was always going to be a tough out for Russia, but for the third straight Winter Olympics, Russia will not medal in ice hockey.

Just as the rest of the Russian Olympians have begun to round into form and bring a flood of medals home for their country, in the sport that Vladimir Putin himself has said is the most important, Russia has choked on home soil, eliminated at the same stage as they were in Vancouver.

Like they did against Canada, Finland kept shots to the outside and insulated Tuukka Rask, and unlike against Canada, he didn't give up any softies.

The game started well for Russia, with Ilya Kovalchuk striking on an early powerplay to grab a one goal lead on a feed from Pavel Datsyuk, but that would be the last happy hockey memory Russia would have at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Under two minutes after Russia opened the scoring, Andrei Markov iced the puck after missing an outlet pass to Valeri Nichushkin. On the very next shift, Anton Belov did the same thing, and this time Juhamatti Aaltonen would punish him for it, with a fantastic individual effort that tied the game.

The goal was a weak one on Semyon Varlamov, that seemed to go right through his chest. Immediately the question was raised, why is it Varlamov and not Bobrovsky? If the Russian coaching staff would have thought the same thing, maybe the game doesn't end the way it did, but it was 3-1 in favour of Finland before the switch was made.

Finishing the game with 38 shots, Russia never gave up on the game, but the lack of scoring punch from the supposed "best top 6 in the tournament" plagued them mightily.

Alex Ovechkin is the prime example of those struggles, with just 1 goal in 5 games. Ovechkin is going to face mountains of criticism over this tournament, and he'll deserve approximately none of it. From the very beginning of the Olympics, you could tell that Ovechkin had bought into a team concept. He was trying his very best to make it all about Russia, and not about Alex Ovechkin.

The fact is, that Ovechkin fell victim to a streak of bad shooting luck at precisely the wrong time. Perfect scoring chances missed nets, or his stick would break. It was that kind of tournament. With everything on the line for Russia, he was played only 18 minutes by a coaching staff that seemed more intent on showcasing KHL players than winning hockey games.

After the game was over, the entire Russian team stormed past the media. In the face of such crushing disappointment, you can't blame them. But one person stopped, and that was Alex Ovechkin. Does that show leadership? I don't know, I don't really think so. I do think it shows a maturity that Ovechkin is often accused of lacking though. It shows a willingness to take the brunt of the criticism for the failure of an entire team.

In the end, what looks like an embarrassment for Russia on the surface is truly par for the course. They haven't won a best on best tournament in hockey since the 1981 Canada Cup, and haven't been a top 4 team since 2006. They haven't won a medal since 2002, where they finished third. Russia is a declining hockey power, this is undeniable.

Finland however, ravaged by injuries to their center ice position, is the most consistently underrated hockey power. After Canada, they are technically the second most successful nation on average since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that's without winning a single tournament.

They never have the most talented team, but Finland is always, always in the mix, and they'll be facing Sweden in the semifinals on Friday.

A disciplined, defense oriented game surrounding an elite goaltender, along with an ability to counterattack with speed, and no one should be surprised if Finland ends up in the gold medal game.

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