Olympic Ice Hockey Quarterfinal Recap: Sweden, Finland, United States and Canada Avance - How did Russia Lose?

Quinn Rooney

Only three games remain until the men's hockey champion is crowned in Sochi, earning four years' worth of bragging rights over the rest of the world. We'll take a look at how the four remaining teams got here and how the home team failed to do so.

Quarterfinal 1: Sweden 5 - Slovenia 0

Wednesday's action started off at 3 in the morning on the East Coast (although at a slightly better time for the fans in the countries involved). Top-qualifying Sweden faced off against the upstart Slovenian team which was probably the best underdog story of the Olympics. Unfortunately for spoiled dipshits who grew up on 'The Karate Kid', the real world kicks underdogs in the nards more often than they let them win championships. Such was the case with this game, as Sweden handily rolled over Anze Kopitar's team.

Red Wings Updates: Alfredsson and Kronwall each scored a primary assist in this game and Gustav Nyquist might have been robbed of a secondary helper on the first Karl Hagelin goal. Nyquist played just 3:18 as the team's 13th forward and ended up with two shots on goal. Jonathan Ericsson played just 12:51, as Nik Kronwall found himself with other partners at times during the game.

Quarterfinal 2: Finland 3 - Russia 1

I'll go into more detail on the why below, but the how is that Finland played a speedy physical game against the Russians, took advantage of defensive mistakes, and got much better goaltending on their way to this win. Russia got on the board first with an Ilya Kovalchuk power play blast, but kept that advantage for less than 90 seconds in the first period. Eight minutes after that, the Russians found themselves trailing on a Teemu Selanne goal and would never be able to catch up, even as they outshot the Finns 38-22.

Red Wings Updates: Pavel Datsyuk played 19:33, which was more than any other center on Russia's roster. He set up the Kovalchuk goal with some good puck movement on the power play as well. Overall, Datsyuk had two shots on goal and was part of the most-consistently dangerous Russian forward line (alongside Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov).

Quarterfinal 3: Canada 2 - Latvia 1

The Latvians put a bit of a scare into Team Canada with a terribly good bend-don't-break game. Patrick Sharp put the Canadians ahead about midway through the first, but Lauris Darzins brought them even just two minutes later by sneaking onto the ice behind the defense after a faceoff and collecting the breakaway pass. Despite how nervous this game made our Canadian friends, Latvia was thoroughly outclassed and if it hadn't been for an amazing performance by goalie Kristers Gudlevskis, the 57-16 shot advantage would have wielded a much bigger score differential. Great wasn't good enough though as Shea Weber scored the game-winner with under seven minutes to play in the third.

Red Wings Updates: Mike Babcock's "Outshoot them 3 1/2-to-1" gameplan was effective at putting away this Quarterfinal matchup, but in the future, he might want to tell his guys to get it past the goalie more often.

Quarterfinal 4: United States 5 - Czech Republic 2

Just five minutes into this game, the Americans and Czechs found themselves tied 1-1 in a high-paced game. The Czechs were comfortable playing a run-and-gun style and managed to carry swaths of play during the first, but ultimately found themselves outrun by a more-talented, speedier squad, and let down by questionable goaltending. After the tying goal at 4:31, the Americans scored the next four before cruising their way to victory. Phil Kessel added a goal to retake the tournament scoring lead from Erik Karlsson and American captain Zach Parise finally got on the scoreboard. Brooks Orpik also took a dumb penalty, so this was a game of meeting expectations, really.

Red Wings Updates: Unlike that loser Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard allowed ZERO goals today. It's pretty clear which netminder should get the start on Friday (Ryan Miller, obviously).

How did Russia fail?

Among the more-interesting discussion points from today is the failure of the host country to medal and the talk about how big a surprise that really is. Honestly, people calling the Finland victory an "upset" are working off a faulty definition of the term, as it was neither technically an upset nor was it one based on a more liberal definition of the word. Finland was simply a better team. However, this game (hell, this tournament) was a winnable one for the Russians and their failure to do so will be viewed as a disappointment.

The next few weeks will surely be full of postmortem analysis on the team and probably a heavy dose of scapegoating/finger-pointing from a Russian Hockey Federation looking to pick itself up after such a letdown. I think there were three main factors to the let-down which turned a winnable game into a disaster.

  1. Flatly, the Russians weren't a good enough team to overcome their mistakes, especially at defense. While Finland took advantage of overmatched blueliners, it was apparent going into the tourney that the country has a shortage of truly top-end elite talent on the blue line and they weren't able to overcome that. On the forward side, the Russians have enough talent at the top to compete, but lacked lower-line punch. Overall, I think the weak defensive corps dragged down the forwards more than it was simply the forwards not being good enough. Defensive miscues, bad clearing attempts, and missed passes slowed down transition and made it much tougher for the Russians to find the speed needed to make room up the middle of the ice on the bigger surface.
  2. Despite the relative failures of the defense, Team Russia was badly let down by Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. After each scored a goal and multiple points in the tourney opener, neither managed to find the scoresheet again. Both had flashes of brilliance, but overall, these two never seemed to mesh. This should have been Russia's top line and they were thoroughly outplayed by the Kovalchuk-Datsyuk-Radulov trio.
  3. Russia's head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov made a rash of bad decisions in his team's games, failed to get the entire team to gel well, and perhaps worst of all, started the wrong guy against Finland. Simply put, the problems with Malkin and Ovechkin were apparent from the loss to the U.S. going forward. Whether by separating them or coaching them better, it falls on his Bilyaletdinov's shoulders to get performance out of what should be his two best forwards. Additionally, the limited use of Valeri Nichushkin in favor of lesser-skilled KHL players, while likely politically motivated, wasn't a good idea. The nail in the coffin for the Russian squad was the decision to start Semyon Varlamov over Sergei Bobrovsky, who I'm pretty sure was still fresh enough to play after facing 22 shots against Norway on Tuesday.

Overall, Russia will finish outside of 4th place in this Tournament and that result isn't a huge surprise, but it qualifies as a big disappointment for a team that should have had enough advantages to get them into the medal rounds.

Looking ahead

Both Semifinal games take place on Friday, with Finland vs. Sweden starting at 7:00 and then Canada/United States dropping puck at noon. Each of these games is a rematch of the last two Olympic Gold Medal Games and all four of these teams absolutely deserve to be in this position. It will be interesting to watch the Gold Medal Game essentially come down to a battle of the North American champion versus the best European team.

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