Defending Olympic champion Canada got past Latvia to advance to the semifinals of the men’s ice hockey tournament in Sochi, where host Russia was ousted by Finland in the quarterfinals and failed to medal for the third straight Winter Games.
The U.S. and Sweden also won quarterfinal games yesterday, the Americans beating the Czech Republic 5-2 and the Swedes shutting out Slovenia 5-0. Tomorrow’s semifinals are rematches of the past two gold medal games, as Canada plays the U.S. four years after winning the title in Vancouver, and Sweden, the 2006 Olympic champion, faces Finland.
Shea Weber scored a power-play goal for Canada with less than seven minutes left to snap a 1-1 tie against Latvia, which lost all three of its games in preliminary-round play and finished last out of 12 teams in each of the past two Olympics. Canada held a 57-16 advantage in shots on goal.
“We just had to try to stay even-keeled,” said Weber, who plays for the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators. “I don’t think you can worry. You’re going to run into adversity. There are tough teams in this tournament, and there are games that might not go the way you want them to. So you have to stay even, and not get up-and-down.”
Russia’s most visible team, one heavily supported by president Vladimir Putin, wasn’t able to overcome a strong goaltending performance by Finland’s Tuukka Rask, who plays for the NHL’s Boston Bruins and made 37 saves. The Russians are tied with Canada with eight Olympic hockey gold medals -- including seven as the Soviet Union in nine appearances from 1956 through 1988 -- and were considered by oddsmakers such as Bovada.lv as the second-favorite to Canada for the title.
“There were great hopes placed on us and we didn’t live up to them,” said Russian forward Pavel Datsyuk, who plays in the NHL for the Detroit Red Wings.
Russia’s fifth-place finish on home ice follows a sixth-place showing in Vancouver, its worst performances on Olympic ice since its first Winter Games appearance in 1956.
The Russians, who against Finland were playing their fourth game in five days, haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since 1992 in Albertville, France.
“We had nothing to lose,” said Teemu Selanne, whose goal with just over two minutes left in the first period put Finland ahead for good. “We were not supposed to win. They had all the pressure. I think they were out of gas a little bit, and we tried to take advantage of that, and the game plan worked.”
The women’s gold medal hockey game is scheduled for today in Sochi, where Canada faces the U.S. seeking a fourth straight Olympic title. Canada beat the U.S. 2-0 in Vancouver in 2010.
The Canadian men’s team will also play the U.S. after overcoming Latvia, as Weber scored on a slap shot with three seconds left on a third-period power play.
The U.S. got goals from James Van Riemsdyk, Dustin Brown, David Backes, Zach Parise and Phil Kessel to pull away from the Czech Republic yesterday and has now outscored opponents 20-6 in Sochi while winning all four of its games.
Strong goaltending performances led Sweden and Finland into the other semifinal.
Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist of the NHL’s New York Rangers stopped 19 shots against Slovenia for his second shutout of the Sochi Games, while Finland knocked off the Russians behind Rask even though they were outshot 38-22.
The men’s gold medal game is scheduled for Feb. 23, the closing day of the Sochi Games.
It may have been the most important of the 98 medal events to the host nation, where hockey is the second-most popular winter sport behind cross-country skiing, according to 2012 data from the Ministry of Sport. The number of participants grew by 30 percent from 2009, and Putin, 61, is a recent convert, shown recently in a documentary on Russian state TV playing and scoring in a red jersey.
Ahead of the Sochi Games, Vladislav Tretiak, the head of the Russian hockey federation and a goaltender on gold-medal winning Soviet teams, said in an open letter to this year’s team that the “entire country will be looking at you” and implored the players not to let Russia down.
In the final minutes yesterday, with the Russians trailing by two goals, the whistles were far louder than the cheers as the crowd at Bolshoy Arena showed its displeasure with the home team. As the game ended, a fan wearing a red and white Russia jacket bellowed curses from the stands at the players. The public address announcer asked for applause for both teams, which just led to an increase in the volume of the whistles.
Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov apologized to the fans for the team’s performance after the game, while ignoring Russian reporters’ specific questions about strategy and players. “It was an unfortunate game for us,” he said. “Expectations were quite different.”
Russian defenseman Anton Belov said the Finns, who have won two silver medals and three bronze medals in the seven Olympics since 1988, played better as a team.
“They showed us how to play hockey,” Belov said. “Each one of us wanted to save the situation and played individually. The Finns showed how to make passes and play as a team.”
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