Russia is not the same team without Alexei Morozov, Andrei Markov, and Petr Schastlivy. New Jersey Devils forward Sergei Brylin made his tournament debut filling in for Morozov, but once Schastlivvy went down late in the first, Team Russia’s lines lost all sense of continuity and chemistry. Only the trio of Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, and Alexander Frolov stayed intact on a constant basis.
The loss of Markov hurt backline at even strength, but it also took its toll on the Russian power play. Team Russia head coach Vyacheslav Bykov initially tried Alex Ovechkin at Markov’s left point position, but it clearly wasn’t working. Ovechkin wasn’t getting the puck at the proper angle for getting a good shot off as a righty working the left side with a left-hander opposite him.
Team Finland may deserve credit for employing a bit of Old Time Hockey ethos in its matchup with the high-powered Russians. Accidental or not, Sean Bergenheim took out Markov with a knee-on-knee early in the first. Other Finns rattled Russian forwards into the boards with questionably high sticks and with their targets in vulnerable positions, and at questionable times relative to puck possession. It was clear that Finnish coach Westerlund wanted his team to send a message of being in the game not merely physically but on the edge of being within the rules.
This was a game of high-stakes composure, and at various times you could see that the Russians were losing theirs while the Finns, being Finns, maintained theirs. There was a clear psychological strategy devised as part of the Finnish gameplan, and by and large it dictated the game’s being played at a pace beneficial to Team Finland.
The injury attrition clearly impacted Team Russia. Throughout the tournament the healthy Russians made magnificent use of a trailing forward or pinching blueliner to seize scoring chances within open ice in the high slot off the rush, but tonight, with key veterans Markov, captain Schastlivvy, and leading scorer Morozov out, the well-oiled, system-disciplined Team Russia devolved into a more individualistic game, playing into the Finnish trap.
Building on the above kneejerk, Team Russia’s unwillingness to share the puck in the offensive zone made it even harder to beat formidable Finn netminder Kari Lehtonen. As noted in this space for previous games involving Team Finland, the way to beat Lehtonen is by getting him to move from side to side or at least trying to beat him stick side as Malkin did on Russia’s lone goal of the day in the first period. By taking shots – and often telegraphing those shots – from poor angles rather than looking to hit the trailer or threading passes to the other side of the ice, the Russians made Lehtonen’s job easier than it had to be.
In the latter stages of the third period and overtime, Arena Khodynka was filled with life, sound a palpable tension. We had the sense that had Team Russia been able to beat Lehtonen to put Russia in the lead, the crowd would have blown the lid off the place. Instead, it was as if a hot air balloon had been punctured when Koivu potted the game-winner in overtime. When the game-ending red light went on behind Russian netminder Eremenko, an arena that for the past week had been a haven of flag waving, high-octane Russian rock music, and ear-piercing whistling by home-town partisans instantly sank into six or so seconds of silent disbelief. Middle-aged, grey-haired men groaned, hip-swaying, singing young female ushers sobbed, leaving little doubt as to what this tournament means in these parts.