By JIM LITKE
2014-02-20 03:42 AM
SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- Right from the start of the tournament, the only way to envision the Russians winning a gold medal in hockey was to close both eyes and keep them shut.
They stumbled out of the gate before escaping Slovenia and then lost their nerve in a shootout loss against the United States. Perhaps the only person inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome who couldn't see that was Vladimir Putin, who from a magisterial perch high above the rink, somehow arrived at the conclusion that his side was still the better team.
No one dared ask the president whether his seat faced the rink.
There was no confusing what happened Wednesday, when Finland outhustled, outsmarted, outhit and ultimately outed the Russians as a top-heavy team with exactly one player who was playing as if the entire country was counting on him to bring the gold home.
That would be captain Pavel Datsyuk, who played five games on a bad leg, but left no questions about the condition of his heart, shining again in a 3-1 loss.
Not so Alex Ovechkin, who is the most visible Winter Olympics athlete in the land but disappeared from the score sheet after getting his only goal just past the one-minute mark in the opener. Ditto for Evgeni Malkin, who also scored in the first period against Slovenia and then effectively took the rest of tournament off.
The only department where the Russians outdid the Finns was shots on goal, 38-22. But after Ilya Kovalchuk drove home a one-timer off a deft pass from Datsyuk for a 1-0 lead, there was no way the Russians were going to slip a pillow mint past Finnish goalkeeper Tuukka Rask, let alone another puck.
Juhamatti Aaltonen equalized for Finland, and 43-year-old Teemu Selanne followed up with a goal that sucked all the air out of Russia and epitomized the way their team played the whole way through.
Teammate Petri Kontiola deflected a cross-ice pass back over the blue line that Russian defenseman Slava Voynov lazily chased down along the left board, even as Finland's Mikael Granlund was bearing down on him. Granlund squeezed past Voynov -- who either didn't know he was being pursued or didn't care -- then stole the puck and cut for the net. Racing up the right side of slot was Selanne, already the Olympics' all-time goal scorer, who somehow surprised the rest of the Russian defenders by arriving just in time to tuck Granlund's hard-won assist into the net.
Increasingly desperate Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov replaced his starting goalkeeper, Semyon Varlamov, with Sergei Bobrovsky six minutes into the second period. Then he started upping the minutes for all those NHL stars who were supposed to make this a glorious homecoming, but will likely spend the rest of these games in hiding.
By the end, Kovalchuk had logged a team-high 23:15, followed by Alexander Radulov (20:00) Datysuk (19:13) Malkin (19:19) and Ovechkin (18:30). Fat lot of good all of that did any of them. The Finns didn't take a shot for the final eight minutes of the second, and managed just five in the third. They didn't need to.
"We let our guard down a little bit, but we defended well and kept them outside," Rask said with a mischievous grin, "so that was good."
Rask's smile and the diplomatic answers provided by the rest of the Finnish side spoke volumes. None were going to say the Russians quit, or didn't have enough firepower left to worry them, or even that the Finns knew they could run out the clock against a team that never proved it knows how to chase a game.
While several of his teammates displayed their best moves while evading reporters, Datsyuk stopped and said simply, "Inside, I'm absolutely empty."
Ovechkin said, "No emotion right now," which made you wonder how he would have described the rest of the week.
Finally came Bilyaletdinov's postgame news conference. It was an absolute howler.
One exchange best summed it up: Asked if the overall result was a "catastrophe," he replied "This was an unsuccessful game." A moment later, another reporter without a microphone simply began yelling. The best guess is that it was some kind of follow-up to the "catastrophe" question.
"Let's not play word games," Bilyaletdinov said wearily. "You can call it whatever."
The Russians who packed the Bolshoy Ice Dome couldn't clear out fast enough. Even beating a hasty departure, however, they offered plenty of ideas for what Bilyaletdinov could call his team's woeful experience.
"We've been preparing for the home games for seven years and what?" said Sergey Kazakov, a businessman from Moscow. "Just a group of stars but no team and no result."
"The coach is to be blamed for the result, only the coach," said Alexei Korovin, a manager from Tomsk, Siberia, who added a moment later, "I wish my money back."
All $50 billion?
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.