It Wasn’t To Be: The World Championship Semifinals
Team Finland was always going to represent a difficult test for Russian Head Coach Oleg Znarok and his players, heading into Saturday’s semi-final clash at the World Championship. And in the end, the Finns turned out to be too much of a challenge on this day, putting an end to Russian hopes of a gold medal on home ice. Read on, as we look back at what happened, and what comes next.
Words had obviously been said about Team Russia’s shake start against Germany, as the hosts came out flying in the opening minutes of the semifinal. Russian attempts had tested Mikko Koskinen seven times before the Finns mustered a shot of their own. And by that time Team Russia was ahead. Ivan Telegin’s centering pass was flicked on goal by Sergei Shirokov. Koskinen made the save, but Shirokov, following up, located his own rebound and fired it home. One goal to none, and a better first few minutes could not have been imagined.
Finland, however, are very very good, and when they went on a powerplay a little later, the chances were going to come. The best of them fell to Aleksandr Barkov of the Florida Panthers; his shot beat Sergei Bobrovsky, but not the goalpost. Slowly, the Finns began to get back into the game, defending and counterattacking well, and though the shots favoured Russia by 10-4 in the opening 20 minutes, Shirokov’s goal was the only one on the board at the first break.
We have to wonder what might have been had Alexander Ovechkin, clear through on Koskinen three minutes into of the middle period, been able to stuff the puck home. But the Finnish goalie, team-mate at SKA St. Petersburg to several of the Russian players, foiled him, and not long after that the game was tied. Working on a powerplay, Mikael Granlund teed the puck up beautifully for 18-year-old Sebastian Aho in the high slot, and the youngster half-volleyed it past Sergei Bobrovsky in the Russian net. The Finns then killed two Russian man-advantages with fair ease, before taking the lead with five minutes left in the second. Another 18-year-old (and a potential first-overall NHL draft pick next month), Patrik Laine, drew the attention of three Russian players, and nobody picked up veteran Jussi Jokinen sneaking in at the far post. Laine found him, Jokinen picked the water-bottle off the top of Bobrovsky’s goal, and it was 2-1.
Ovechkin was having a period to forget; he had already been stopped on the afore-mentioned breakaway, and he took a late penalty just as it looked like Russia might escape to the second break down by only one. On the resulting Finnish powerplay, Mikko Koivu sent the puck into a crowd in front of Bobrovsky, and it settled perfectly for Aho to fire home his second of the game. The 3-1 deficit after the first forty minutes meant that Oleg Znarok’s crew had some real work to do to in the final twenty.
Credit to the Russian players — they brought they everything they had to the third period, out-shooting Finland 13-2 for a full-game total of 29-16. But by this time Team Finland knew what they had to do, defending in depth and not allowing the sort of crisp, incisive, passes that Russia has showed on numerous occasions earlier in the tournament. And whatever did get through found Koskinen unyielding. Yevgeny Dadonov had a glorious chance to reduce the deficit, but could not get the puck on goal, and then, as the clock ticked down, Bobrovsky came out for an extra attacker. Russia pressed hard, but this last gambit met with no success. It ended 3-1, and Finland will play Canada on Sunday for the gold medal and a sweep of the three major men’s tournaments this season (the Worlds, the World Juniors, and the Under-18s). Russia, meanwhile, will go for bronze against the United States.
Special teams told a large part of the story of the game. The victors were penalized five times, but their penalty-killing was perfect on the night, giving up no goals and limiting Russia to five shots with the man advantage. The Finnish powerplay, meanwhile, lit the red lamp twice in four opportunities. Furthermore, after recovering from the early onslaught, the Finns executed their game-plan to perfection. They kept the powerful Russian attack to a minimum of truly dangerous chances, while taking full advantage of their own time in the offensive zone.
It must also be said that this result is in no way an upset. We are in something of a golden age for Finnish hockey, and they have played spectacularly at this tournament. Their record is 9-0, and that already includes a victory over tomorrow’s Canadian gold-medal-game opponents. The hockey world should take warning, too: given the tender years of players like Laine and Aho (not to mention Jesse Puljujärvi waiting in the wings), this era may go on for some time.
As for Team Russia, the players cannot afford to hang their heads, despite the disappointment of today’s result. There is, after all, still a medal to be played for! The big task for Znarok will be to get his guys pumped back up again to face the U.S., especially as they will likely have to go for bronze without the participation of Telegin. The CSKA Moscow man, who has been truly excellent at the Worlds, was the victim of a slash from Atte Ohtamaa late in today’s game, and may have sustained a fairly severe injury as a result (there is even some talk of a broken ankle, although that is not official at this point). One interesting decision for the Russian coaches will be who gets the call in net against the Americans. Not that Bobrovsky can be faulted for today; three goals against on sixteen shots looks bad, but he had no real chance on any of the Finnish goals. However, Ilya Sorokin has looked very good in limited action at the Worlds, and two big games in two days might suggest that a change is in order.
We shall see. Whatever happens, we will wrap up the World Championship at the blog here tomorrow, to be followed by the regular dose of news notes on Monday (and there has been news this week, oh yes). In the meantime, thank you for reading!