By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans for a golden finish to the Sochi Olympics were cancelled on Wednesday when Finland claimed a party-pooping win over the hosts of the Winter Games in the men's ice hockey competition.
Russia have had other victories to celebrate and may yet finish top of the Sochi medal table, but that haul will not include gold in the sport that matters most.
Finland's clinical 3-1 quarter-final victory in front of a devastated capacity crowd at the Bolshoy Ice Dome will leave the most expensive Olympics without the show-stopping climax that Russians had ached for.
The men's gold medal will be the last decided in Sochi, handed out hours before Sunday's closing ceremony.
"I cannot explain my feelings. Inside I am absolutely empty," said Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk. "The emotion we feel right now is disappointment, disappointment that we didn't live up to the hopes placed on us.
"There were great hopes placed on us and we didn't live up to them."
At a Winter Games built to showcase Russia's modern face nothing would have been more symbolic of the country's resurgence as a global player than a return of the men's hockey team to the top of the Olympic podium.
Once international hockey's undisputed superpower, Russia's dominance faded following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Winners of six of seven titles from the 1964 Innsbruck Games to Calgary in 1988, the last glimpse of the mighty Russian hockey empire was seen at the 1992 Albertville Games when a "Unified Team" of former Soviet republics took the gold.
Russia's ice hockey gold drought has now been extended to six Olympics after they also lost in the quarter-finals in 2010.
Putin had taken great interest in the Sochi team, suiting up for a practice session with the players and watching from the Bolshoy stands when Russia took on old Cold War rival the United States in a preliminary-round clash that was hyped as a rematch of the 1980 Lake Placid 'Miracle on Ice'.
That contest also ended in defeat with Russia losing in the eighth round of an epic shootout.
When Ilya Kovalchuk opened the scoring in the first period against Finland the futuristic arena exploded in joy.
But by the time Mikael Granlund had tallied in the second to put Finland 3-1 up it seemed as if the life had been sucked out of the Bolshoy.
"I just feel empty, disappointed and empty inside," said Russian netminder Sergei Bobrovski. "It's hard to say whether this is a maximal or minimal failure. Failure is failure. How can you measure it?"
Led by Alex Ovechkin, Russia's best players had arrived at the Black Sea resort on a gold-medal mission to restore the country's hockey honor.
In many ways Ovechkin was not just the face of Russian hockey but the face of the Sochi Olympics, a proud Russian who was prepared to risk his $124 million contract if his American club team would not allow him to be part of the Games.
It was a bold threat that did not go unnoticed by Olympic and government officials who granted Ovechkin the honor of being the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch after it was lit at Ancient Olympia.
On Wednesday Ovechkin was left to sum up the country's mood.
"It sucks," said Ovechkin. "That's all I can say."
(Editing by Robert Woodward)