Wednesday, February 19 was a crazy day in Olympic hockey.
With the round robin play done, the Russian team, though underperforming, seemed to be on a crash course for meeting Sweden in the quarterfinals, with the winner playing for a gold medal and the loser competing for the bronze.
All Russia had to do was move past Finland, a team with nowhere close to the same caliber of offensive firepower or goaltending as the heralded Russian team. But games are not played on paper, and the Finns demonstrated that masterfully on Wednesday with their 3-1 victory over the Russians, who were favored not just to beat Finland, but to make a legitimate bid for a gold medal, especially with the added advantage of home ice throughout the tournament.
Finland rode excellent play from Boston Bruins’ goaltender Tuukka Rask, who stopped all but one of the thirty-eight shots he faced.
Ilya Kovalchuk of Russia’s KHL opened the scoring early in the first period on a power play goal assisted by the Russian captain, Pavel Datsyuk. Finland’s Juhamatti Aaltonen responded just two minutes afterwards, and the ageless Teemu Selanne, fresh from the nursing home, scored to give Finland the lead with two and a half minutes left in the first period.
The Finns held their lead until the end, adding a cushion goal in the second period, all despite being outshot thirty-eight to twenty-two in the game. Russia’s starter, Seymon Varlamov, let in three goals on just fifteen shots; he was replaced by former Flyer and reigning Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky (who spells his name “Bobrovski” while in competition for team Russia), who stopped all seven shots he faced and kept Russia in the game until the very end.
The defeat is humiliating for the Russian team, some of whom talked about walking away from the NHL if Gary Bettman (always petty, always annoying) barred NHLers from attending the Sochi games. It was important to them, and the country as a whole, and they failed. Not only did the Russians fail, but they did so before they even had a shot to win a medal. Despite being ahead in the overall medal count (Russia currently has twenty-two, leading the Netherlands and USA by one), this is a heartbreaking and devastating loss for the Russian population. Hockey is their sport, as Americans treat baseball and football as purely American pursuits. The lyrics to a song sponsored by the Russian hockey team, their unofficial anthem called “Shaybu Shaybu,” read “And as if it is a joke/ That the best game for our men/ By accident was born in Canada.” Despite hockey obviously being a primarily Canadian sport, Russians jokingly (maybe?) lay claim to its lineage as rightfully their own. Hockey is important, really really really important, in Russia.
But after today, it will be a sensitive subject for the average Russian.
The loss by Russia leaves the door wide open, practically off its hinges, for Sweden to advance to the gold medal game. Canada and the US will play Friday, and the winner will get a shot at the gold.
Canada looked shaky in their win against Latvia; they needed almost the entire game to put away a supremely inferior Latvian team, along with several dumb, draining penalties by Latvia that eventually led to Shea Weber’s game-winner late in the third period.
The USA team cruised to victory against the Czech Republic, putting up high offensive numbers once again. The game appeared close throughout most of the first period, but David Backes’ goal with 1.8 seconds to go in the period proved to be the game winner, giving the U.S. a 3-1 lead at the time. They would go on to win by a score of 5-2.
The Canada-USA game airs at 12PM EST on Friday. (Note to teachers: Not letting students watch this game would be positively un-American. Just saying.) It will be a rematch of last Olympics’ gold medal game; Canada will be looking to advance for a chance to repeat, presumably against Sweden. The United States will be looking for long-awaited revenge for their overtime loss in Vancouver. The hockey tournament has already seen huge upsets, excellent games, and the birth of a star/legend/shootout specialist, T.J. Oshie (not to say I called it, but I did predict “epic” hockey in Sochi back in January). All this has happened, and we haven’t even reached the medal games, nor has most of the American hockey audience caught a glimpse of the electrifying Swedish team.
The real action starts Friday.