To the Final Four!
It was simple math for Russia in today’s World Cup of Hockey group stage battle against Finland: win and advance to the semi-finals, or lose and be eliminated from the tournament. You can guess from the picture above, and the post title, how it all worked out, but read on for some discussion of the game itself!
(A quick blog note: the usual Thursday update on our KHL Players of Interest will occur tomorrow.)
For Finland, the 2016 World Cup represents a rare blot on what has been a spectacular year in international hockey. Defeated already by Team North America and by the Swedes, the Finns came into Thursday’s game with only pride, and the spoiler’s role, to play for; those earlier losses had already eliminated them from semi-final contention. And so all the pressure was on Russian head coach Oleg Znarok and his team, especially considering that Finland have already defeated Russia at both the World Championship and the World Juniors this year. There was some bad news for the Russian side before the game, too, when injury ruled out the venerable but still mighty Pavel Datsyuk (his SKA St. Petersburg team-mate Vadim Shipachyov drew back into the lineup as a replacement). All-in-all, it had the makings of a tense afternoon.
The game began in fairly even fashion, although some Russian nerves may have been evident in a couple of first-period penalties. No harm was done, though; Sergei Bobrovsky, coming off his fine performance against the young North Americans, continued to play well, and the opening 20 minutes ended with goose-eggs on the scoreboard.
Early in the second, however, Finland came within a hair of taking the lead, when Mikael Granlund drove a shot off the post behind Bobrovsky. It stayed out, though, and on almost their very next attack the Russians broke through. Alexander Ovechkin, in heavy traffic in the Finnish zone, passed up a shooting opportunity and instead picked out Vladimir Tarasenko arriving unmarked at the far post. The St. Louis Blues man was left with the simplest of tap-ins, and Russia were up 1-0. The lead became two shortly thereafter, and this time it was the KHL contingent getting in on the action. Shipachyov got the puck to Ivan Telegin of CSKA Moscow, then the latter cut across the front of the Finnish goal and used every inch of reach available from his 6’3″ frame to tuck the disk around Tuukka Rask’s outstretched pad and into the net. 2-0.
Finland, to their credit, pushed back hard, and Znarok felt obliged to use his time-out mid-way through the second period to settle things down. However, Bobrovsky remained resolute, his team-mates regained their calm, and the lead held up through 40 minutes. And early in the third frame, Yevgeny Malkin gave his team some further breathing space. It was an odd sequence; with a Finnish player out of the action after colliding with an official, Russia broke out on an odd-man rush. Malkin kept the puck the whole way, and fired home a shot that Rask, on a better day, might have stopped. No matter; 3-0 the score, and much of the uncertainty about the final result was gone at that point. The game slowed down, with the only real question left being whether Bobrovsky could keep the clean sheet. He could indeed; 3-0 it ended, and Russia are through to the next round at the expense of the North American team. A sad result for the Finns, however, who are a much better squad than their 0-3 tournament record suggests.
And so for Russia it is on to Saturday, and the semi-final match-up against Canada in the latest installment of that long and storied hockey rivalry (Sweden plays Team Europe in the other semi-final). Russia will have to be at her best; the Canadians are 3-0, and have appeared fairly dominant in all three of their victories. It appears that they will have to do it without Datsyuk as well, after Znarok described the forward’s chances of playing as “minimal.” However, it is a tired cliche but a true one that anything can happen in a single game, especially when one’s goalie is playing as well as Sergei Bobrovsky is, and one can call upon the talents of Ovechkin, Malkin, Tarasenko, and I could go on but you get the idea. In any case, it should be highly entertaining!