Olympic Update: February 24th, 2018
We are not far from the gold medal game of the men’s 2018 Olympic hockey tournament, and the Russian team is indeed involved, as I’m sure you know. What follows here is by way of a quick catch-up post to bring everybody up to date on how we got to this point, and we will also take a very short look back at the end of the Russian women’s team’s tournament in the bronze medal game against Finland last week. Read on…
Since their surprising loss in the tournament-opener to Slovakia, the Russian men’s team has had a relatively uncomplicated path to the final. Top spot in the group was secured with a 2-1 record, enabling the Russians to skip over the play-in round and go right to the quarterfinals. There, the opponent was Norway. Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Gusev, and Vyacheslav Voynov staked Oleg Znarok’s team to a 3-0 lead after a first period in which they out-shot the Norwegians by 19-2. The Russian squad eased off the gas thereafter, and allowed an Alexander Bonsaksen goal to reduce the arrears to 3-1. However, another trio of Russian goals followed, from the sticks of Sergei Kalinin, Nikita Nesterov, and Ivan Telegin, and 6-1 was the final score.
And so it was off to the semi-final, where a difficult opponent awaited in the form of the Czech team, which had topped a group that included Canada before betting the U.S. in the quarterfinal. The big story of this semifinal, however, would be the play of Metallurg Magnitogorsk goalie Vasily Koshechkin. The KHL’s reigning playoff MVP would make 31 saves on the day, and two Russian goals within 30 seconds in the middle period (Gusev and Vladislav Gavrikov the scorers) were thus enough. Ilya Kovalchuk added an empty-netter late on for a 3-0 final score and passage to the gold medal for the first time since the 1998 Games in Nagano.
Of course, the big story of this Olympic men’s tournament however, has been what happened in the other semi-final, where Germany sensationally defeated the Canadian side 4-3. Even with NHLers missing from the Canadian roster, it was a monumental, historic, upset. Germany’s last Olympic hockey medal was a bronze in 1976 (that was West Germany, to be precise); it was the country’s second bronze medal, following on the the one secured in 1932. The Canadian men did recover to defeat the Czechs 6-4 in today’s bronze-medal game, but it is the Germans who go on to play for top spot.
The Russian side will obviously enter the gold medal game as overwhelming favourites, but just as obviously coach Znarok will need to have his players well-prepared for, and wary of, an opponent that has eliminated not only Canada but Sweden as well (the latter of those upsets occurred in the quarterfinal). The Russian side will need to particularly alert to the danger posed by EHC München forward Patrick Hager, who leads the Germans with three goals and three assists in six games at this tournament. Russian fans may recall Hager unkindly for another reason as well; it was he who injured Sergei Mozyakin at last year’s World Championship with a truly disgusting slew-foot (Hager was suspended for two games for the offense).
Znarok will not make any changes to his lineup for the gold-medal game (why would he, at this point?), so Vadim Shipachyov and Alexei Marchenko, who have not appeared in game since the loss to Slovakia, are destined for the press box once again. Koshechkin, who has played all but one period of this tournament for Russia, will certainly get the start.
Some historical context: the Russians have already clinched their first Olympic medal since 2002 in Salt Lake City (bronze on that occasion), and their first silver-or-better since 1998 in Nagano, where they lost to the Czechs in the final. The last time a Russian team took home gold at Albertville in 1992, when a squad of players (the “Unified Team”) from that country and the other newly-independent post-Soviet states defeated Canada 3-1 in the final.
For the women’s team, the Olympics came to an end last week in heart-breaking fashion: a narrow 3-2 loss to the Finns in a thrilling bronze medal game. In that one, goals early in each of the first two periods staked Finland to a 2-0 lead (Petra Nieminen and Susanna Tapani were the scorers), before captain Olga Sosina pulled one back for the Russian side. Linda Välimäki’s goal for 3-1 late in the second period would prove decisive in this game. Through Russian coach Alexei Chistyakov could have few complaints about his team’s play in the third period, the Russians could only find one of the two goals they needed; Lyudmila Belyakova got them to 3-2 early in the final frame. But Finnish goalie Noora Räty, named to the All-Star team at these Games and deservedly so, held the fort the rest of the way to get her team the bronze.
A day later, in a similarly enthralling encounter, Canada and the United States played for gold, and it was the latter who came out on top. The U.S. captured their first gold medal in Olympic women’s hockey since 1998 with a 3-2 win via the shootout.
While the Russian side may have come up painfully short of that much-hoped-for medal, the fourth-place finish is the team’s best in the history of Olympic women’s hockey, so there is at least that for a silver lining. Tomorrow, we will have some final thoughts on their tournament, and — based on what happens this evening — on the men’s final outcome. And we will look at what may lie ahead for the two senior Russian national teams.
Thank you for reading!