COLOGNE – The last team to beat Russia at a World Championship was Finland. In 2007, in Moscow, no less, Team Finland’s Mikko Koivu sinked the hosts with his 2-1 overtime goal in the semi-final. Since then, Russia has marched from one win to another, making a pretty string of 23 wins - including two finals - along the way.
Both teams are not only through to the quarterfinal, they’ve also secured a top-two billing in Group E which keeps them in Cologne, and allows both teams to make some adjustments, try new things, or rest key players.
“The team is in good shape, everybody’s here, everybody’s healthy, everybody’s ready to play, and everybody wants to win,” Russia’s assistant coach Igor Zakharkin told IIHF.com.
“The tournament’s most important games are the ones after our game against Finland. We’ll try some new things, maybe take some risks in the game tonight so that we’ll be ready for the next game,” he added.
Russia has used all three goaltenders so far in the tournament but according to Zakharin, the coaching staff has now chosen their starter, and as expected, his name is Semyon Varlamov.
“He will play against Finland, and if things go well, he’ll play the rest of the tournament. He needs to get some more help from the rest of the team, so he can focus on his game and get some confidence,” Zakharin said.
Finland, in turn, will rest defencemen Lasse Kukkonen and Petteri Nummelin, who’re nursing minor injuries, which opens the door for Juuso Hietanen, who will make his World Championship debut.
"It's a strong team, at least on paper. Half their team are NHL stars but as always, hockey is a team sport, and playing as a team is our strength. I think we can beat Russia if we play as a team," said goaltender Pekka Rinne, who will get the night off, as coach Jukka Jalonen gave the start to Petri Vehanen.
Just 24 hours prior to their game against Russia, Finland beat Slovakia, and clinched its playoff spot. Russia, on the other hand, has had a couple of days off, but the Finns don’t think playing back-to-back games is a disadvantage.
"We've worked hard in the off-season to be able to play in these games, there's only one week left in the season. I'm sure we'll be ready and rested when he puck drops," said Jussi Jokinen, who scored his first goals of the tournament in the game against Slovakia.
With two veteran defencemen out of the lineup, 18-year-old Sami Vatanen will get an opportunity to take an even bigger role on the team.
“I’m looking forward to meeting all those stars, who knows when I will get the chance again,” he said.
“I’ll just get there, try to enjoy every moment, and see if I can get a good hit on some of their big guys,” added Vatanen, 175 centimeters and 72 kilos, with a smile.
Finland wins the group if it beats Russia in regulation time. If not, Russia stays atop Group E. Surely they'd also like to keep the winning streak going.