BERNE – This is the ultimate showdown. Whether you're Canadian or Russian or hail from another nation, in pure hockey terms there can be no more exciting clash than a gold medal game between Canada and Russia.
We saw proof of that last year when the Russians rallied from a 4-2 deficit in Quebec City to dethrone the host Canadians with Ilya Kovalchuk's 5-4 winning goal in overtime. With due respect to David Moravec's OT goal against the Finns in Germany 2001 and Anson Carter's video-reviewed wraparound OT clincher versus Sweden in Finland 2003, the deciding game in Quebec City was the most thrilling IIHF World Championship final so far in the new millennium.
What makes this year's rematch even more intriguing is that we're not witnessing the traditional split, with Canadian heart, grit, and desire pitted against explosive Russian skating and scoring ability.
This is going to be skill on skill. And going up and down the two rosters, the Canadians may actually bring more skill than their opponents this year.
Five Canadians own a spot among the top 10 tournament scorers heading into the gold medal game: overall leader Martin St. Louis (15 points), Steve Stamkos (11 points), Shea Weber (11 points), Dany Heatley (10 points), and Jason Spezza (10 points). There are only two Russians in the top 20: Ilya Kovalchuk (14 points) and Alexander Radulov (nine points).
Merely scrutinizing the numbers, however, doesn't convey how the Canadians have been collecting their points. Traditionally, Canadian teams have looked to play five-on-five as much as possible, with their downfall coming when they take untimely penalties. But Lindy Ruff's squad feasts on power play opportunities, capitalizing on 19 of 44 opportunities through nine games for an overall success rate of 43.18 percent, well ahead of Russia's 27.91 percent.
These Canadians are capable of making the cheeky finesse plays you'd more likely associate with the Soviet KLM Line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov in their 1980s prime. Just take Canada's opening goal versus Sweden in the semi-finals as an example. The back pass from St. Louis behind the net to Derek Roy at the side of the cage, catching Tre Kronor goalie Jonas Gustavsson off guard, was absolutely beautiful.
Has St. Louis played any better than this since his Hart and Art Ross Trophy-winning campaign of 2003-04 with the Tampa Bay Lightning? Playing a bigger role than on the '08 World Championship squad, he's already outstripped his totals from last year (2-8-10).
Heatley, Canada's all-time scoring king, is excelling as usual at this tournament, his one-time from the faceoff circle ever-dangerous. With his heavy shot and physical presence, defenceman Shea Weber will likely claim a roster spot on the 2010 Olympic team that many originally assumed would go to Calgary's Dion Phaneuf. And if this isn't a coming-out party for Canada's Steve Stamkos, well, what is? (Tampa fans, rejoice.)
But even if you concur that the Canadian goaltending (either Chris Mason or Dwayne Roloson) is more generally reliable than Russia's (expect Ilya Bryzgalov), there are two crucial questions that remain to be answered.
1) Can the Canadians contain Kovalchuk?
The 26-year-old Tver-born left wing is the single most dangerous and explosive player appearing in the gold medal game, and this year, he is playing with a maturity and focus that he has never displayed to this degree before in international competition. In past tournaments, he too often played the role of puck hog. He'd try to beat two or three defenders singlehandedly even when it was clear he had no room to operate. In 2009, he's been picking his spots, and not letting his emotions get the better of him.
With nine assists, the Atlanta Thrashers superstar has shown an ability to find his teammates and demonstrated confidence in their ability to convert. Lesser-known KHL lights like Anton Kuryanov (3-3-6) and Vitali Atyushov (3-3-6) have stepped up and followed Kovalchuk's lead. Now it's time for the likes of captain Alexei Morozov (1-4-5) and late addition Nikolai Zherdev (0-1-1) to do the same.
It was Kovalchuk who imposed his will and found the way to defeat the Americans in the semi-finals. He made the first two Russian goals happen, and he gave his team a much-needed jolt of adrenalin. If he's held off the scoresheet on Saturday, Canada's prospects look immeasurably brighter.
2) Who wants it more?
It's hard to imagine Russia feeling complacent after skating back to the top of the mountain in 2008 for the first time in 15 years. Not to say that Canada doesn't want and expect nothing but gold, either. But the Russians will have a packed PostFinance Arena full of red, blue, and white flags urging them on. The Canadians will not face the level of media scrutiny and criticism that the Russians will if they fall short at this tournament.
Also, being battle-tested is often a good predictor of success at the IIHF World Championship. Vyacheslav Bykov's has battled through tight games with Switzerland, Sweden, Belarus, and the United States in this tournament, while the Canadians haven't been pushed as hard in their games, apart from the shootout loss to Finland to conclude the Qualification Round. Yes, that's partly a tribute to how well Canada has played. Bhe fact remains that it's useful to have a scare or two en route to the final most years in order to deliver that peak performance at the right time. (Even when Canada won nine straight in Moscow 2007, there were tight games against Germany, Norway, and Slovakia to open the tournament and “get their attention,” so to speak.)
The Russians are still building momentum heading into the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and they need another confidence-building victory before tackling the monumental task of denying Canada (at home, on the small rink) gold in the biggest and most-publicized hockey tournament in history.
In other words, the Russians just may want this one a little more. And if they fall short, it will be the gap between desire and execution that is their undoing. The Canadians need to prove if they can live up to the identity that Hockey Canada has constructed so well since the Olympic gold medal of 2002.
It's hard to imagine this year's final outdoing last year's. But we've got the best possible matchup to create another showdown of mythic proportions. The ultimate showdown.
Lucas Aykroyd is IIHF.com’s Vancouver-based correspondent. Aykroyd has covered every IIHF World Championship since 2000, as well as the 2002 and 2006 Olympics.