QUEBEC CITY – Team Finland is following in the footsteps of Iiro Jarvi. Now the question is whether they’ll have more success in their semi-final with Russia on Friday than the veteran IFK Helsinki forward had in his NHL career.
If you’re wondering about the connection here, Jarvi is one of the few top-level Finnish players to appear in both Halifax and Quebec City in the same year (1989-90), when he suited up for the Nordiques and dressed down for their AHL affiliate, the Halifax Citadels. The Finns made the trip west from one provincial capital to the other aboard a charter flight Monday morning. Even though they’re carrying their share of AHLers (three, to be exact), they have reason to believe they can give the Russians just as much of a battle as the squad that ousted the hosts on Moscow ice by a 2-1 count in OT in last year’s semis. We’re a long way away from the days when the old Soviet national team routinely dominated Finland.
For 2008, it starts with the ultra-cool goaltending of Niklas Backstrom, who’s recorded a creditable 91.03 save percentage and 2.31 GAA in six appearances. The Minnesota Wild veteran, who led Karpat Oulu to back-to-back Finnish League titles in 2004 and 2005, didn’t look quite as good versus Canada, surrendering a Ryan Getzlaf goal 33 seconds in. Giving up two late tallies against the Americans in the quarter-finals could also raise some eyebrows. But otherwise, Backstrom brings more stability, if fewer flashes of brilliance, than last year’s starter, Kari Lehtonen.
The AHL brigade on the blueline has done its job so far. Power play specialist Janne Niskala of the Milwaukee Admirals has led the way with a goal and two assists, and Sami Lepisto of the Hershey Bears provided the overtime winner against the USA. The lone NHLer, Ville Koistinen, may not get as much attention for his team-high plus-minus of +3 as his phantom goal in Finland’s first win over the Americans, but he’s played well. Swedish Leaguers and former NHLers like Ossi Vaananen and Antti-Jussi Niemi will be expected to keep the high-flying Russian forwards in check at the blueline and down low.
Meanwhile, the selection of top-tier Finnish forwards is close to what you’d find at the Olympics, and they’ve delivered enough offence to keep this team afloat, albeit narrowly versus Norway and Latvia, not to mention the Americans. The number one line of Ville Peltonen, Saku Koivu, and Teemu Selanne has combined for 14 points (from Selanne) in 18 man-games, and the second line with Tuomo Ruutu, Mikko Koivu, and Olli Jokinen brings even more grit and intensity than scoring touch. Jokinen, a perennial 30-goal scorer with the Florida Panthers, needs to click a bit more, as he’s scored just one goal so far, while Ruutu’s looking good with four.
The Finns are a healthy, confident bunch. With seven players returning from last year’s team, their internal belief that they can knock off the Russians is that much stronger.
As for the Russians? They’re getting a lot more out of NHL scoring leader Alexander Ovechkin (six goals and three assists) than he provided in Moscow last year (a goal and two assists), and Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov are following his lead. That’s a huge plus for Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov, who will have to make adjustments with the one-game suspension to Ilya Kovalchuk after his head-hit on Switzerland’s Julien Vauclair.
Alexander Radulov, the MVP with the 2006 Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts, will slot back into the lineup and get a chance to delight his local supporters again.
“We’re expecting something good from him, because he made his name here and we want him to show that,” Bykov said. “A lot of people are chanting all the time: ‘Radulov, Radulov, Radulov!’ We’re expecting him to show us why on the ice.”
In terms of dealing with Finland’s up-front talent, Bykov doesn’t see it just as a matter of shutting down Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, both perennial threats in international competition. “I don't look at them as a team with only two players,” said Bykov. “It’s a team that has worked together a long time with a Canadian coach who works all year with the team. We consider them a unit, not one or two players.”
Everyone knows that the Russian game plan will be to jump on Finland with their explosive speed and stick skills. Getting a couple of quick goals, as Russia did in its 6-0 quarter-final trouncing of Switzerland, could be a killer, as it would force the Finns to open up. And the Russians can afford to trade chances even more than usual due to the brilliance of Vezina Trophy finalist Evgeni Nabokov in goal. Against the Swiss, the San Jose Sharks veteran showed his worth with a brilliant save on Andres Ambuhl on a shorthanded breakaway.
On the other hand, if Doug Shedden’s Finns manage to take away the neutral zone and wear down the Russians by taking the body whenever possible, that will slow the pace, and the longer it stays close, the better Suomi’s chances are.
“We hope to have a game plan that will allow our guys to get through the defence,” said Bykov. “It’s not easy, that's clear. It’s hard to play against a team that defends very well. We’ve seen teams like Denmark and Norway that just try to destabilize and destroy the other team’s game. It’s not the same. If you’re always reacting to what the other team does, you're always a second or two behind.”
In the quarter-finals, Russia didn’t have to react much to the Swiss, since a pair of first-period own goals essentially sealed the fate of the underdogs. But Finland, which also defeated a stacked Russian team 4-0 in the 2006 Olympic semi-finals, will initiate more than Switzerland did. The Russians will need to keep their emotions in check when a Tuomo Ruutu or Olli Jokinen gets in their faces. Unlike, say, how Kovalchuk reacted with his hit on Vauclair.
It may be heresy to say this, but is Russia better off without Kovalchuk? Yes, he’s tied for the team lead in assists with Denis Grebeshkov, but there’s no lack of potent playmakers here. If Kovalchuk isn’t putting pucks in the net - and he hasn’t put one in this tournament - he is not doing his job. He’s turned over the puck while trying to pull off fancy solo rushes. More importantly, he’s shown an inability to maintain his cool in hyped-up situations before. In Russia’s 4-3 semifinal loss to Canada in the 2005 Worlds, Kovalchuk took an untimely roughing penalty right off a faceoff, suckered in by Kirk Maltby. Canadian junior fans still recall his air-punching antics when he scored an empty-net goal versus Canada at the 2000 World Juniors. The list could go on and on. The Russians need team cohesion and discipline above all else; they already have more talent than Broadway and Hollywood combined.
That said, Kovalchuk’s absence will likely convince his teammates to buckle down a little harder. If Russia stays unbeaten with a convincing win over Finland in this semifinal, Bykov may have to look seriously at scratching Kovalchuk for the gold medal game. While that might be a dicey decision politically, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to end Russia’s 15-year gold medal drought.
But of course, the Finns will have something to say about that. For them, it would be nice to pull together a Halifax-to-Quebec-City tribute for Iiro Jarvi, he of 61 points in 116 career NHL games. The first semi-final at the Colisée could turn out to be the hardest-fought.