Olympic Hockey Heartbreak: Russia ousted on home ice by Finland

Pavel Datsyuk, Team Russia

Pavel Datsyuk, Team Russia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There will be no gold for the Russian men’s Olympic hockey team in Sochi.

With the proposition of tournament life or death hanging in the balance, Finland and Russia squared off in the most high profile matchup of the Olympic hockey quarter-finals, and the host Russians lost 3-1.

Was it an upset? Kind of, but not really. The Finns have been solid as usual at the 2014 Winter Games. In eliminating the Russians they will advance to the semi-finals for a third straight Olympics, earning a chance to become the first hockey nation to medal thrice in a row with NHL players.

Finland is good at hockey and its players know it. When the final horn sounded to signify the Finns had safely secured their 3rd period lead, they gathered around goaltender Tuukka Rask for some one-armed-hugs and high-fives. It was not the celebration of a euphoric underdog; the Finns congratulated one another like they were supposed to win today’s game.

Credit to Team Finland: they have earned themselves the opportunity to play for a fourth Olympic medal with NHL players. Should they win gold, silver or bronze in Sochi it will stand up as the most medals won by any nation since 1998 when pros began competing in the Olympic hockey tournament.

What happened to the Russians?

The Russians were favourites in Sochi. I suspect that had a lot to do with their status as host nation, and little to do with their menial defence corps, suspect forward depth, and outdated coaching staff.

Maybe the Russians should have hired Ted Nolan.

What happened to Alex Ovechkin? Some will ask in the wake of Russia’s disappointing early exit from the tournament they were supposed to win.

Alex Ovechkin might be vilified for today’s loss, unjustly. It was he who became the poster boy for NHLers participating in Sochi when he said he’d partake even if the NHL didn’t allow its players to cross the pond mid-season. This was supposed to be Ovi’s turn to win, and do it in front of his countrymen, in the familiar land he abandoned for NHL hockey glory eight years ago. There will be no hockey glory for Alex Ovechkin today.

Ovechkin is the face of Russian hockey. Furthermore, he’s arguably the face of the entire sport, period. Thus, some will accuse him of not being good enough in Sochi – not doing more to ensure victory. But he’s one man, and the book on stopping Ovi was long ago written by Hal Gill and the Montreal Canadiens. And besides, as easy as it is to single out one guy after a disappointing loss, such practice is always a tad bit erroneous.

So, now what, Russia?

Russian Hockey is not the machine it once was. For the third straight Olympics the home-base nation of the former Soviet Union hockey dynasties will not win a medal of any metal. In fact, the last time the Russians did claim a prize at men’s Olympic hockey was a bronze at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, twelve years ago, with a roster of last remnant Soviet Union kids like Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar. The old guard. The last hope. That same core – raised in the ’80s – won silver at the 1998 Winter Games, losing 1-0 in the gold medal game to Dominik Hasek and the Czechs.

Things could have played out entirely different for the Russian men’s hockey team in Sochi. In its preliminary round game against the United States the Russians scored what appeared to be the go-ahead-goal with less than five minutes remaining on the 3rd period clock. The goal was disallowed because American goaltender Jonathan Quick had slightly knocked his net of its moorings. The right call, but a tough call. The Russians went on to lose the game in a shootout, ultimately preventing them from earning an automatic bye to the quarter-finals, and more detrimentally, positioning them to inevitably go through Finland at an early stage in the tournament. Bad luck. Bad draw for Russia.

Today’s loss is heartbreaking for Russia, especially given the circumstances; losing at home in the quarters with such high expectations. But the good news is: every big loss allows for a big lesson to be learned, once the heartache subsides. As for what the Russians learned today, only time knows, but a rich hockey nation that has bred some of the finest hockey players to ever lace up skates should be capable of growing from today’s heartbreaking experience.

The dream is over… the expectations unmet… the pride of a once powerful hockey nation wounded… This will hurt for awhile.

“Empty,” was the word used by Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk after today’s loss to Finland. Pavel Datsyuk couldn’t have said it any better: the Russian search for Olympic hockey gold in Sochi has turned up empty. The lingering feeling can only be one of emptiness.