May 1 was a Spring festival in Minsk – but celebrating a season of rapid change seems a lifetime ago for the players in today’s medal games.
May Day was also the start of the final stage of the Euro Hockey Tour, and threw up the exact pairings we will see in today’s decisive encounters. Finland beat Russia 2-1, while the Czechs edged the Swedes 3-2 in Stockholm
But this unofficial ‘fifth stage’ of the tour also measures how much has changed in barely three weeks as Finland – the overall Euro Hockey Tour champion this year – looks for a repeat of that Helsinki success.
The competition is often an unreliable form guide, with coaches chopping and changing their rosters to run the rule over new prospects and rest players who have big club commitments.
But that last encounter was played out by two squads that fairly closely resemble the forces available in today’s game.
That day saw Leo Komarov and Petri Kontiola score for Finland, while Nikolai Kulyomin struck late on for Russia. Alexander Ovechkin grabbed an assist, but neither Olli Jokinen nor Yevgeni Malkin were available at that stage. Star goalies Sergei Bobrovski and Pekka Rinne were with their teams, but not dressed for this one.
Even so, looking back to the start of the month also reminds us how much has changed in that time. For Russia, the visit to the Hartwall Arena was the first full international under Oleg Znarok. His roster was just coming together, with players arriving almost daily as their club commitments ended on both sides of the Atlantic.
While some were eager to lament the problems – Russian media coverage at the time focused heavily on Ovechkin’s failure to score in 350 minutes for the national team, dating back to Sochi – others focused more on where Znarok might be able to stamp his authority onto the roster.
Znarok himself, meanwhile, professed himself content with the performance, if not the result.
“I was mostly happy with our game,” he said. “We created lots of chances but couldn’t score. Naturally we’re still working on our power play; we conceded twice when we were short-handed and scored one on the power play.”
Fast forward to May 25, and Russia is still creating lots of chances – in this competition only the Czechs can top the 290 shots Russia has fired in on opposing nets. But now the conversion rate is also up to a tournament-best 12.76%. The penalty kill is also the strongest in the competition, and while there are still some worries about the power play, it’s delivered 10 goals at a more-or-less respectable 20% conversion rate.
Finland too has moved on – and that evolution has been more powerfully visible within this tournament. An uncertain start is now almost forgotten as the final awaits, but it’s worth remembering how it took a run of inspired games from goalie Rinne to get the Finns safely through a fraught group stage.
After conceding late in the 2-3 reverse against Latvia, Rinne was rested against Russia and returned to play almost 170 minutes without giving up a goal against Germany and Belarus. He then kept the Swiss at bay for two periods before monstering their forwards in a vital shootout win, and his performances against Canada and the Czechs were also hugely impressive.
On offence, the likes of Jori Lehtera and Kontiola have blossomed as the tournament progressed; even if Finland won’t score goals at will, they have firepower enough to trouble opponents. And, as Lehtera said after scoring twice to sink the Czechs: “It doesn’t matter how you start a tournament, it’s all about how you finish.”