Going for gold
Going for gold
Old foes face off in final battle
Canada vs. Russia. The birthplace of the game against one of its most artistic disciples. A clash of styles and cultures, steeped in history on and off the ice. And, this year, a battle between a heavyweight roster that cruised through the early stages and an injury-hit team steadily gaining in momentum. The collision course is set; the confrontation will be intense.
The stellar Canadian offence has gathered most of the plaudits in this tournament, and not without justification. With 60 goals in nine games Canada boasts the four leading point-scorers – Jason Spezza, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Matt Duchene – as well as seeing Brent Burns in the top 10 as the second most productive defenceman of the competition. Spezza and Hall were on the scoresheet yet again to lead the team to a 2-0 win over the Czechs and it’s tempting to assume that this roster will simply blow the opposition off the ice.
Yet the semi-final also showed us a reminder of how the Canadians triumphed in Sochi – with rock-solid defence. In the face of a passionately partisan crowd, similar to the Russian support expected today, the team came out ready to battle through a low-scoring game.
“Before the semi-final we talked about how we’d scored lots of goals but also how there was a good chance the last couple of games would be low scoring,” said Spezza. “We did a good job of keeping them on the outside and Smithy [goalkeeper Mike Smith] did a great job.”
It was certainly sufficient to stifle the Czechs, who began with plenty of pace and attacking menace but floundered in front of the wall around Smith’s net. Coach Todd McLellan set his team up to play a five-minute hockey game and a 55-minute one, anticipating a Czech surge inspired by the home crowd, and the players responded with a play of defensive fortitude that had not previously been seen – or required – in the competition.Continue reading
So does Russia have the firepower to put some dents in Canada’s armour? Oleg Znarok has clearly decided that attack is best form of defence in this competition. The defending champion has been beset by injuries at the back – Yevgeni Medvedev and Yevgeni Biryukov are both out, leaving just six D-men to suit up in the play-off round. Yet the last remaining roster slot was filled not by a fresh blue-liner, but by Alexander Ovechkin.
That paid off against the USA in the semi-final, with Ovechkin shrugging off the effects of his Trans-Atlantic dash to claim a goal and an assist. Yevgeni Malkin is playing his way back into form, and produced a crucial 2+2 in the QF success over Sweden. KHL star Sergei Mozyakin has six goals – his most productive international tournament – and Gagarin Cup-winning forwards Yevgeni Dadonov, Vadim Shipachyov and Artemi Panarin have also been lively throughout the competition. If the Czechs were perhaps guilty of relying overmuch on the ageless Jaromir Jagr, Russia has a far bigger arsenal to draw upon, even if Dadonov is reportedly playing through the pain barrier and Ovechkin admits that he didn’t start to feel comfortable on the ice until Saturday’s third period.
But the crucial contribution against the USA came in defence, and particularly from goalie Sergei Bobrovski, whose stunning form was key to securing a shut-out before Russia’s offence began firing in the third.
The goalie believes Russia has improved over the course of the tournament and felt that the semi-final was the toughest test it has faced. “Every time we’ve added a bit more to our game and we’ll keep trying to do that for the final,” he said.
The teams last met in 2010, with Canada humiliating Russia in Vancouver when it came out on top with a 7-3 Olympic quarter-final triumph. Russia got a measure of revenge later that year, beating the Canadians 5-2 at the equivalent phase of the World Championship, but since then both nations have had to wait for a chance to add a new chapter to one of the most compelling narratives in world hockey.
Interest in the game is intense, with Russian president Vladimir Putin confirming that he will be tuning in after playing in a veterans’ tournament in Sochi, and Russia’s players will settle for nothing less than gold.
“Every game we’ve played up to now counts for nothing,” said defenceman Dmitri Kulikov. “This is the only game that matters for us.”
But coach Znarok was unwilling to talk about the big game in detail. “Canada has a great team. What more can I say? We’ll play them and see what they can do.”
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