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Russia offense still unbalanced heading into quarters

by Corey Masisak

SOCHI -- Offense wasn't expected to be an issue for the Russians at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but in the past three games it has been.

Now the host team will face its toughest defensive test yet.

Russia has scored six goals in the past three games, and now the host team will face its toughest defensive test yet as it squares off with Finland in the quarterfinals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (Photo: Getty Images)

Russia has scored six goals in the past three games, and two of those came late in a 4-0 win against Norway that already was decided. After losing 3-2 in a shootout to the United States and defeating Slovakia 1-0 in a shootout, the Russians continued to dictate the play as they have for long stretches of every game, but the goals are not coming as expected.

"The most important thing right now is the team," Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "It's not about personal stats; it's not about the goal-scoring lead. We're here to win the gold; it's not about winning scoring titles and all that kind of stuff."

The Americans blocked a lot of shots and goaltender Jonathan Quick played well. Slovakia and Norway sat back and tried to frustrate the Russians into mistakes. They will see plenty more of that, only a better and more disciplined version of it, when they face Finland in the quarterfinals Wednesday at Bolshoy Ice Dome (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).

Finland kept Canada from the middle of the ice and frustrated it with mistake-free coverage in the defensive zone. The Canadians found a way to score twice in a 2-1 overtime victory, but neither came in 5-on-5 play.

Tuukka Rask is the fortress behind a sound defensive system and the Russians will face a psychological exam from the Finns, let alone the physical nature of trying to break through Finland's structured club.

One problem for the Russians has been the inability to get balance from the forward lines. Neither of the bottom two lines has created much in the way of offensive chances in this tournament, leaving the burden on the top two units.

They are two of the best trios in the tournament, but it might be hard for Russia to advance with only one of those two playing well at a time. The line with Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin consistently was dangerous against Slovakia, but with Semin demoted that line lacked the same dynamism against Norway.

Alexander Radulov had a great game Tuesday, particularly in the second period, and his line, along with Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, provided the necessary offense. Some teams will have one defensive pairing that focuses on defending one line, but Finland's top two pairings have been strong in this tournament and the team's defensive work in general has been commendable.

"[Pavel Datsyuk's] line played well and four lines had chances to score," Ovechkin said. "We just missed the net. That's our biggest mistake right now."

"Forget about lines," Datsyuk said. "We talk about our team. … We were OK."

It's quite possible there has been too much emphasis on the lack of scoring for the Russians, as well as the Canadians. This clearly has been a defense-first tournament.

Defense was supposed to be a potential problem for the Russians, but goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky have been stout and the team has allowed four goals in four games. Norway didn't find much in the way of chances against Russia, but at least one Norwegian wasn't sold on the Russians' defensive effort.

"To be honest, to beat Canada, to beat Sweden, Finland, they need to be more compact as a defensive unit," Norway forward Patrick Thoresen said. "If they can come together defensively I have confidence that they can go all the way. Until I see that I'm not so sure, to be honest."

For the teams that have won games without the expected margin of victory, "only the result matters" has been a common refrain. This tournament has reached the stage where that is true, but it also means the Russians still have to prove they can score enough against one of the medal contenders.

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