SOCHI, Russia — Finland broke Russian hearts in the Olympic men’s ice hockey competition on Wednesday, robbing the hosts of a shot at arguably the most coveted gold medal of the Games with a 3-1 victory.
The United States and Sweden strolled into the semi-finals, but Olympic champions Canada had to do it the hard way with a tense 2-1 win over unfancied Latvia.
Russia had entered the 12-team tournament with the weight of expectation on their shoulders from President Vladimir Putin, but despite being among the favourites, they could not keep pace with a determined Finnish team.
“Inside I am absolutely empty,” Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk told reporters, summing up the mood of a deflated nation.
“The emotion we feel right now is disappointment, disappointment that we didn’t live up to the hopes placed on us.”
Another packed crowd roared the home team on at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome and they were on their feet within eight minutes when Ilya Kovalchuk opened the scoring with a one-timer from the slot that sneaked under the crossbar.
But the effort of playing four games in five nights appeared to take its toll as Finland responded in style.
Just 87 seconds after the opener, Juhamatti Aaltonen sent the puck under Russian goalie Semyon Varlamov’s left arm to equalise and Teemu Selanne slipped a Mikael Granlund pass between Varlamov’s legs.
Granlund rounded out the scoring early in the second period and the hosts could not find a way back.
“We had nothing to lose. We were not supposed to win. They had all the pressure,” Selanne, at 43 the oldest player in the men’s tournament, told reporters.
The mighty Canadians were meant to make short work of Latvia, but they struggled to a nervy 2-1 win.
Despite dominating play and outshooting the plucky Latvians 57-16, Canada needed a late goal from Shea Weber to move into the semi-finals, where they will take on the United States in a rematch of the 2010 Vancouver Games final.
After trading goals in the opening period, Canada threw everything they had at Latvia but could not find the winner until Weber blasted a low slap shot past netminder Kristers Gudlevskis with under seven minutes to play.
“We did a great job, we tried. We left all our strength out there,” said Gudlevskis. “There is not enough. It was exciting and hard.”
“This is the highest level we are going to play. This is even a higher level than NHL and if you can play here, you can play everywhere. It really means a lot for me.”
Canadian netminder Carey Price was impressed by his opposing goalkeeper.
“That was one heck of an effort,” said Price.
Far more serene was Sweden’s 5-0 dismantling of Slovenia to end a fairytale run for the Slovenians in their first Olympic ice hockey tournament.
Top-seeded Sweden will play Finland in the semi-finals on Friday, a rematch of the 2006 gold medal game which the Swedes won 3-2.
Goals from Alex Steen, Daniel Sedin, Loui Eriksson and a pair from Carl Hagelin, along with a shutout from netminder Henrik Lundqvist, finally put the brakes on Slovenia’s joyride.
“We felt that we could maybe surprise another team but it didn’t happen today,” said Slovenian forward Anze Kopitar.
“We’re very proud of this team. We’ve had a hell of a tournament.”
On paper, the contest appeared a major mismatch — Sweden, twice Olympic champions, against Slovenia, a small nation with seven hockey arenas and 148 registered senior male players.
Sweden made the breakthrough 70 seconds from the end of the opening period with a powerplay goal and the floodgates opened in the final period with a four-goal burst.
Also comfortable was the United States’ 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic.
The 2010 silver medallists scored 99 seconds into the game and, despite a solid effort from the Czechs during a fast-paced opening period, were never really tested.
“I thought we played really well tonight but obviously you got to improve each game in this tournament and we got to keep going,” American forward Phil Kessel told reporters.