Finland’s upset of Russia in the Sochi Olympic men’s quarterfinal could force an overhaul of the Russian hockey program.
There was considerable pressure upon the Russian men’s team to win gold on home ice, more so because Russia last won Olympic gold as part of the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1992. They entered the tournament with plenty of genuine superstars like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. They had quality goaltending in Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov. On paper, they should have beaten the injury-battered Finns. Unfortunately, they lacked skill on defense and beyond their top two lines to get the job done.
The defense was the biggest problem area, as the Russians didn’t have blueliners equal to the skills of their top offensive players. There wasn’t anyone of the caliber of a Drew Doughty, an Erik Karlsson, a Shea Weber or an Oliver Ekman-Larsson among their puck-moving defensemen. There wasn’t any big, swift, skilled shutdown rearguards. As we’ve seen in this tournament, offense from the blueline is crucial on the larger ice, especially against opponents who play a defensive zone trap. That put all the onus upon the Russian’s top two lines to carry their offense.
As for their forward depth, while promising young forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Valeri Nichushkin acquitted themselves well, they’re not fully ready yet for prime time. There simply weren’t enough physical power forwards or gritty guys willing to drive hard to the net.
Much was also made about the “politics” of the Russians using KHL talent rather than drawing upon more NHLers, but I consider that argument irrelevant. The Finns carried almost as many KHL players (8) as the Russians (9). The difference was the former played more like a team than the latter. I believe the Russians put together the best roster they could, but there just wasn’t enough depth on their bottom forward lines and defense.
It’s not as though the Russians aren’t capable of producing talent. Regardless of the offensive woes of Ovechkin and Malkin, they’re still among the world’s elite hockey stars. Pavel Datsyuk remains among the greatest two-way players in hockey history. They’re also capable of addressing a weakness, as witnessed by the recent improvement in goaltending. Rest assured they will work hard toward addressing the issues which arose in this tournament.
The Russians lack of quality depth in no way diminishes Finland’s 3-1 upset win in the quarterfinal. The Finns weren’t considered the favorite to defeat Russia, but a strong effort by goaltender Tuukka Rask and timely offense from Juhamatii Aaltonen, Teemu Selanne and Mikael Granlund carried them to victory.
I certainly didn’t underestimate the Finns in their game against the Russians. I’ve pointed out in the past they have first-rate goaltending depth and solid defensemen. Still, given the recent injuries to some of their best forwards (Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov), I doubted they had the offensive depth to overcome the Russians.
Working in the Finns favor, of course, was they weren’t under the tremendous pressure as their opponent. They were the underdogs, so they could relax and focus upon their game. They also had stronger team chemistry than the Russians.
Finland moves on to face Sweden in the semifinal on Friday. The Swedes should take this game very seriously. The Finns upset the Russians and nearly did the same in the preliminary round against Canada. They are not to be taken lightly.
Of all the teams in the semfinal, the Swedes had the easiest path, or at least, that’s how it seems. They won all their preliminary games in regulation (earning the top seed entering the playoff rounds) defeating the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Latvia and Slovenia.
Look closer, though, and the path wasn’t as easy as it seemed. After romping to an early 4-0 lead against the Czechs they gave up two straight goals and were forced to play a smarter defensive game to clinch the win. The Swedes narrowly defeated Swtizerland 1-0 and had their hands full against the underdog Latvians. Only their victory against over-matched Slovenia could be considered “easy”.
They’ve also done it without several key forwards. Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen were sidelined before the tournament began, then they lost captain Henrik Zetterberg for the rest of the tournament to a herniated disc.
Despite this, the Swedes are getting it down with strong goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and a balanced lineup. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is the tournament’s second leading scorer. They’re also getting offensive contributions from blueliners Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alexander Edler and Niklas Kronwall. Veteran forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Daniel Sedin are their top-scoring forwards. They’re third in scoring efficiency, possess the best power play and are fifth overall on the penalty kill.
Given their ability to adjust to teams who play a defensive zone trap, the Swedes could have success countering the Finns tight-checking system.
Apart from requiring overtime to beat the Russians in preliminary action, the Americans have made short work of their opponents thus far. Granted, they haven’t faced the stifling defensive trap as some of their rivals, but their offense is firing on all cylinders and they’ve received solid goaltending from Jonathan Quick.
The Americans have seven forwards in the top 30 scorers. Four – Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski, James van Riemsdyk and David Backes – are among the top fifteen scorers. Kessel, in fact, is leading the pack with 8 points. Ryan Kesler, T.J. Oshie and Patrick Kane round out this group.
By comparison, Finland has four forwards in the top-30, with one (Mikael Granlund) in the top ten. Canada and Sweden has only two forwards each in the top-30 and none among the top ten.
The only concern I see for the Americans is their young defense. Unlike the Finns, Swedes and Canadians, no American blueliners are among the top-30 scorers. During their preliminary round win over Russia they struggled at times to contain the Russian attack. They’ll face a stiff test against Canada in the semifinal.
Credit plucky Latvia for throwing a scare into Canada before falling 2-1 in their quarterfinal match. Once again, however, Canada was dominant everywhere except on the scoreboard. And once again, their forwards struggled to score. Patrick Sharp finally broke through with his first goal of the tournament, but it took a Shea Weber howitzer shot from the point to break a 1-1 deadlock late in the third to ensure the Canadian win.
One reason for the ongoing struggles of Canada’s vaunted offense is their inability to break through the defensive zone trap employed by most of their opponents (Latvia, Norway and Finland) in this tournament. Rather than the larger Olympic ice surface creating more room for scoring players, the Canadians have been forced to play a dump-and-chase style against opponents who also collapse down low to take away the prime scoring areas around the net.
Another issue for the Canadian forwards is a tendency to over-pass when clear scoring opportunities are available. It’s happening less frequently as the tournament progresses, but even against Latvia the Canadians at times were guilty of passing instead of shooting.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Canadians fare against the Americans in the semifinal round. Like the Canadians, the Americans don’t play that trapping style of defense, preferring a puck-possession game with plenty of movement. Perhaps that’ll open up more opportunities for the Canadians.