International Ice Hockey Federation

Seeking a case for the defence

Seeking a case for the defence

Scoring masks blueline worries

Published 14.05.2015 12:57 GMT+2 | Author Andy Potts
Seeking a case for the defence
MINSK, BELARUS - MAY 24: Sweden's Tim Erixon #4 and Russia's Yevgeni Malkin #11 battle for the puck during semifinal round action at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Russia faces Sweden in a repeat of last year's semi-final - and Sweden is out to avenge the 3-1 defeat that ended its title defence in Minsk.

Both teams bring plenty of attacking options, but both have issues at the other end, with Russia’s defence stretched by both injury and indifferent form and Sweden suffering from some below-par goaltending.

Russia’s passage to the last eight was choppier than expected. There have been flashes of brilliance, but also some error-strewn displays from the defending champion – often within the same game. Bright spots include the scoring form of SKA St. Petersburg trio Artemy Panarin, Yevgeni Dadonov and Vadim Shipachyov, who have 29 points between them. They also make a big contribution to a strong PP, with Russia converting 40% of its extra-man opportunities to top the stats at this year’s World Championship.

The alarm bells are ringing in defence, though. Injuries have robbed the roster of Yevgeni Biryukov and have put Yevgeni Medvedev’s participation in doubt, while Maxim Chudinov is playing through the pain barrier. As a result, Russia’s traditional weakness is more exposed than usual and that has cost defeats to the USA and Finland as well as a bunch of sloppy goals allowed against more modest opponents.

Making matters tougher, the team may only be able to ice six D-men in Thursday’s clash – but Dmitri Kulikov is unconcerned by the prospect of extra work.

“I don’t think that will be a problem, it often happens in the NHL,” he said.

Russia may seem to have an advantage in preparing for the game, since Sweden has had to move from Prague to Ostrava despite taking second place in Group A. The third-placed Czechs get to stay in the capital as the host nation. But Viktor Tikhonov is not keen to read much into that.

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“It could help us but there’s not much point in worrying about trivia right now,” he said when the quarter-final match-ups were known. “We need to prepare for the next opponent. We’ve seen a couple of the games from Prague but we mostly focused on the other teams in our group here.”

Head coach Oleg Znarok feels his team has been improving steadily throughout the competition. After the shoot-out loss to Finland he said he was happy with the spirit that his players showed. He also said that this year’s Swedish roster was better than the 2014 edition.

Last year’s 3-1 semi-final win for Russia was marred by an angry exchange between the benches in the closing seconds, with head coach Znarok being suspended for the final for his role in the clash with Rikard Gronberg. Znarok bristled when asked about it after Russia’s final group game against Finland, saying: “Do you want us to do it again? What happened last year doesn’t matter to me at all.”

Gronberg also had little to say about it when the Swedes trained in Ostrava on Wednesday. “I’ve not spoken to the Russian coach since then but I don’t expect any repeat. I’m looking forward to a game of hockey.”

For Swedish forward Jimmie Ericsson, a team-mate of several Russian players at SKA St. Petersburg, this game has a little extra spice – but he won’t be offering any theories about how to spike the free-scoring Dadonov line or handle Ilya Kovalchuk.

“I know how strong that line is, they’re really talented players and we have to get tight on them and not give them time to play,” he said. “But I’m not here to advise my team-mates how to play against the guys from SKA. We have a great scouting team that will take care of all that.

“Of course I’m looking forward to it. It’s always fun and inspiring to play against the guys who you see day in, day out all year.”

Sweden has its own scoring sensation in the Czech Republic, with Filip Forsberg currently topping the goalscoring charts with eight markers. As well as him, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the most prolific defenceman in the competition with 2+9=11 putting him into a four-way tie among the leading pointscorers alongside Dadonov and two Canadians. The big question mark comes in goal, where Jhonas Enroth has played the bulk of the games but ranks just 15th for saves with an 88.78% success rate.

Russian defenceman Kulikov is a fan of Ekman-Larsson. “It obvious that he’s a good skater, he uses the puck well and can cope under pressure and find the right pass,” he said. “We’ll have to get tight on him on the blue line and in our zone.”

Sweden benefited from an extra day off before the quarter final, but faced a trip across the Czech Republic from Prague to Ostrava ahead of the meeting with Russia. For head coach Par Morts, the logistics are no big problem, though. “We’ve got plenty of energy and I don’t think Russia will get any advantage because we’ve had to travel to Ostrava,” he said. “Russia is a very skillful team and we’ll have to play a smart tactical game. That’s the key to winning. A year ago in Minsk we didn’t quite have enough to win it. Maybe Russia is a bit stronger this year, I’m not sure, but as for us we definitely put together a stronger team.”

Swedish defenceman Staffan Kronwall, who plays in the KHL for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, was back in training on Wednesday but his upper body injury is expected to rule him out against Russia. The Russians had Yevgeni Malkin, Shipachyov and goalie Sergei Bobrovski training separately on Wednesday but all three are expected to be fit for the game.

Since last year’s meeting in Minsk Sweden has enjoyed a good run of results against Russia, culminating in back-to-back Euro Hockey Tour wins in Mytischi just a week before the start of the World Championship. To repeat that on a bigger stage the Tre Kronor will need a strong goaltending performance from Enroth to keep Russia’s stellar offence at bay, but clearly has the firepower to worry Oleg Znarok’s men. For its part Russia needs to tighten up on the defensive lapses and uncommitted passages of play that have marred much of the group phase and focus on playing its best hockey without a let up for 60 minutes.


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