Reversing the Sochi storyline, Russia's superstars shone against Finland in Sunday's final. Four power-play goals made the difference in a thrilling 5-2 win.
It was a tense, hard-fought gold medal game at Minsk Arena – a true climax to the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Only in the third period did Russia pull away.
Danis Zaripov paced Russia with a goal and two assists, while Sergei Shirokov added a goal and an assist. Tournament scoring champion Viktor Tikhonov (16 points) had a single, and NHL superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin also scored for Russia.
Unbeaten in 10 straight games in Belarus, the Russians succeeded in taking revenge for Finland’s 3-1 quarter-final victory at the Olympics in February, which ended the grand dream of home-ice gold in Sochi.
"It's a different tournament [after the Olympics], but it's great to win it," said Nikolai Kulyomin. "We were all coming here to win. The Russian team is always playing to win."
This is Russia’s fourth World Championship gold medal in the last seven years (2008, 2009, 2012).
Iiro Pakarinen and Olli Palola replied for Finland, while Jori Lehtera added a pair of helpers.
The game was portrayed as a duel between top NHL netminders Sergei Bobrovski and Pekka Rinne. The towering Finn, who was named to the all-star team and voted tournament MVP, couldn't have done much more as Russia outshot the Finns 39-26.
"Rinne was great all tournament and kept us in the game tonight with his play," said Jarkko Immonen. "He carried us on his shoulders."
The pro-Russian crowd of 15,112 came expecting a coronation. They got what they came for. The Finns never made it easy on their foes, but were ultimately outclassed.
Russia played without head coach Oleg Znarok behind the bench. He was suspended for making an unsportsmanlike gesture toward the Swedish bench in Saturday's 3-1 semi-final win. Znarok’s longtime assistant coach Harijs Vitolins, who’ll be the new bench boss of Dynamo Moscow, took over in his absence.
"If you don't know Znarok, he is a very emotional man, who answers for his words and for his men," said Ovechkin. "He was the captain of this ship and he led it on the right course. And this leader was taken away from us. But we fought for him. And for our relatives, our children, the entire Russia."
Despite this loss, 2014 was still a success for the Finns. Their silver medal follows Olympic bronze in Sochi, where the legendary Teemu Selanne was named tournament MVP. The Finns also captured World Junior gold in Malmo in January, beating host Sweden in overtime.
"I think winning silver is an accomplishment," said Tuukka Mantyla. "It was awesome to win something. Of course I am disappointed and wanted to win a gold medal but considering where we were to start this tournament, this is an accomplishment."
Finnish head coach Erkka Westerlund added another silver to go with the ones he captured at the 2006 Olympics and 2007 World Championship.
Prior to the final day's action, Russia boasted the tournament’s best offence, but only the sixth-best power play (20.83 percent). That would change, big-time.
There was plenty of intensity from the get-go. Seconds in, Malkin laid a high, undetected cross-check on Erik Haula, who would return wearing a face shield. Every time the whistle blew to stop play, a shoving match ensued.
The Finns couldn’t convert on an early 4-on-3 power play. Mantyla high-sticked Sergei Plotnikov in the face and Russia went to work. The best chance went to Shirokov, who zinged one off Rinne’s mask from the slot.
Another mid-period Russian man advantage produced a stunning sequence of Rinne saves, as he foiled Malkin and Ovechkin again and again, his long frame almost unbelievably acrobatic. But he couldn’t stop everything.
At 10:45, Shirokov made it 1-0, taking a Danis Zaripov pass from down low, stepping into the left faceoff circle, and whipping a perfect shot inside Rinne's left post.
Mighty chants of “Molodtsy!” erupted as Minsk Arena came alive with Russian flags waving wildly.
The Finns tied it up with just three seconds left in the first period. It was thanks to the same duo of Lehtera and Pakarinen that combined on the late quarter-final winner versus Canada. Here, an onrushing Lehtera sent a deceptive pass to his right through the Russian defence, finding Pakarinen, who fired the puck through a kneeling Bobrovski’s five-hole.
At 6:51 of the second period, with Zaripov off for interference, the Finns jumped into a 2-1 lead. Stepping off the right side boards, Lehtera centered it to Immonen, whose quick release was stopped. But the rebound came out to Palola, and he beat Bobrovski on the stick side.
Utterly deadly, Russia answered less than a minute later. Ovechkin, the Russian captain, went to the front of the net and took a beautiful pass from Vadim Shipachyov, backhanding it with electric swiftness past a diving Rinne to make it 2-2.
Penalties would prove to be Finland's undoing, even though the blue-and-white squad felt some of them were marginal calls.
"You can make your own judgements about the referees today," said Finnish captain Olli Jokinen. "We have to stay out of the penalty box. I thought we played well 5-on-5, but they took advantage of the power play. They are a good team. You give them enough power play chances and they are going to score."
The Russians got an extended 5-on-3, and Malkin put Russia up 3-2 at 15:38 of the second. From the right faceoff circle dot, he whizzed it top corner past Rinne’s stick, with Plotnikov screening, and the Motherland’s fans rejoiced again.
"It wasn't me, it was a great passing sequence, just like we practiced," said Malkin. "We paid a lot of attention to the 5-on-3 this morning. The guys did a perfect job feeding me and creating traffic in front."
The middle frame clearly belonged to Russia, with an 18-5 edge in shots.
At 4:24 of the third, the Russians capitalized again on the power play for a 4-2 edge. Zaripov, wide-open to Rinne's left, lifted a perfect shot to the far corner as the goalie reached up helplessly.
While the Finns had their chances down the stretch, a late tripping penalty to Lehtera on Ovechkin in the neutral zone ended Suomi's hopes of a comeback.
With the man advantage, Tikhonov tipped home an Alexander Kutuzov drive to round out the scoring at 5-2 with 4:07 left.
Finnish frustration then boiled over, as Salomaki took an undisciplined penalty for hitting Yegor Yakovlev from behind. Lehtera took another minor before the pro-Russian arena erupted with joy.
"They have a really good team," Immonen said of Russia. "There is no excuse. They really earned the championship."
Ovechkin's face radiated joy as he hosted the World Championship trophy, getting mobbed by his teammates at centre ice. He teased Znarok a little before handing the cherished hardware over to the head coach, who came out for the medal celebration.
Znarok’s team repeated the feat that Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s 2012 team accomplished: winning 10 straight games in regulation time. Prior to 2012, it hadn’t been done since the golden Soviets of 1989.
"Our coach is very important," Kulyomin said of Znarok, leading Russia at the Worlds for the first time. "He's built a team, he's put everybody on the same page, and he finds the right words at the right time. He's done a good job."
Russia's victory doesn’t entirely make up for the catastrophic failure in Sochi, or even last year’s 8-3 loss to the Americans in the World Championship quarter-final. But it is still a positive first step for the Russian program as the cycle leading up to the 2018 Winter Games in Korea gets underway.
The potential danger for the Russians will lie in becoming complacent after a victory like this. They can't assume they'll continue to win at the Worlds or even break their Olympic drought without delivering a consistent defensive effort year in and year out. This year’s goals-against of 10 (one per game) must be reflective of what they shoot for in the future.
And there is the ongoing issue of producing new heirs to Vyacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Andrei Markov on the blue line.
But for now, it's about enjoying a golden triumph in the first-ever meeting between Russia and Finland in an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship final.
"I thought Finland battled very well," said Malkin. "We didn't expect them to be so positive, but it turned into a good, entertaining game."
The Finns, ever resilient, will regroup.
"We lost our first game against Latvia, but after that, we had to win almost every game," reflected Mantyla. "Lots of pressure. Belarus and Switzerland are all hard teams to play against. I think we earned our quarter-final place. We played our best game against Canada, I think."
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin were both in attendance at the final, seated side by side.
Russia will kick off its defence of its world title when the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gets underway in the Czech Republic. Prague and Ostrava are the host cities (May 1-17).