SOCHI, Russia – As the sun set over the Black Sea, it was also setting on Russia's dream of an Olympic hockey medal on home ice, as Finland stunned the host nation 3-1 in a quarterfinal game on Wednesday evening in Sochi.
"You know that nobody ever believed that we could win but it doesn't matter. The experts are wrong many times. We have to believe in our team," said Finnish star Teemu Selanne.
Russia hasn't won an Olympic hockey medal since their bronze in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. While every Olympimc loss stings for this hockey-mad country, this one especially so.
"It is the gold medal that the country wants to win," Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner told NBC's Al Michaels after the host nation lost to the United States. "I've said it before and I'll repeat it: If we win that gold medal, all the others don't matter. If we don't win it, all the others don't matter. It is the medal."
From the start, it was a battle of Russia's individual skill against Finland’s form, structure and strong goaltending from Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins (37 saves). In the end, Finland’s defense was too stout, and Russia’s stars continued to flame out: Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin (who was called out after the game by his coach) tallied only one goal each in five tournament games.
Russia got on the board first with a goal from Ilya Kovalchuk on the power play. As Mikael Granlund sat in the penalty box for holding, Pavel Datsyuk sent the puck to Kovalchuk at the point for a one-timer. What left his stick might have had a vapor trail: His shot flew past Rask and into the top of the net at 7:51. It was the kind of shot that not only pops the water bottle, but likely boils what’s inside of it. Kovalchuk jumped in the air in celebration, tucking his knees near his chest.
The joy, however, was short-lived.
Just 1:27 later, Finland responded with a goal in tight quarters by Juhamatti Aaltonen. He owned Russian defender Nikita Niktin with a deke and fired the puck on goalie Semyon Varlamov, who couldn’t squeeze it between his left arm and his body. It squirted through, into the net, and the 28-year-old right wing with Kärpät of SM-liiga had landed an enormous counterpunch to Kovalchuk’s upper cut.
A miscue by the Russian defense later in the period would give Finland the lead.
Mikael Granlund set up the goal after a Slava Voynov turnover, outracing the Los Angeles Kings defenseman to the puck. Defenseman Andrei Markov made a desperation slide, but Granlund slid the puck to Finnish hockey legend Teemu Selanne, playing in his 32nd Olympic game. Varlamov had two Finns on his doorstep with no support; he tried to take on both options, and Selanne calmly fired it past him at 17:38 for the 2-1 lead.
Selanne and Granlund combined again on the power play at 5:37 of the second period. Kimmo Timonen passed to the slot where Selanne had the trigger pulled but flubbed the shot. Yet it bounced through Varlamov over to Granlund, who tucked it home.
Just over a minute later, Varlamov was pulled for Sergei Bobrovsky.
Meanwhile, Rask was up to the task. After Finland took the lead, he robbed Alex Semin with a sliding stop and Malkin twice in the second period. In the third, he corralled a Pavel Datsyuk deflection on the penalty kill.
He was the backbone of Finland’s penalty kill, which squashed Russian chances late in the second period and midway through the third.
For Finland, it’s a remarkable tournament run, given they lost their top two centers – Miikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula – to injury before the tournament. They advance to play Sweden on Friday in the tournament semifinal, a rematch of the 2006 gold medal game.
For Russia, it's an embarrassing loss, after a four-year build up to this moment.