HELSINKI – If you were basing the script for today’s gold medal game on a well-known story from the Bible, there’s little doubt which one you’d choose.
The Slovaks are David: nobody expected the small Central European nation to get this far with a relatively unheralded roster, and they have only one gold medal in their history. At the last four World Championships, they have finished no higher than 10th, which is where they ended up on home ice last year.
The Russians are Goliath: the top nation in the IIHF World Ranking, playing in their fourth final in the last five years, loaded with NHL superstars that will also be expected to lead them to gold on home ice at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
(The analogy becomes a little wobblier when you factor in giant Slovak captain Zdeno Chara, who more than any other player in the world combines overwhelming size with skill. But let’s carry on regardless.)
Before the tournament, virtually everyone would have agreed the Russians were supposed to make the finals. Under new head coach Vladimir Vujtek, the Slovaks are the ones who’ve changed perceptions.
“Nobody was looking beyond our first game,” said Chara. “We were just trying to play our best and win the first game. Then from that point, we focused on the second game, third game, and so on. We just took it game by game. Nobody came into this tournament thinking about medals. I think everybody’s trying to play his best, and we’ve had a good performance.”
After early losses to Canada and Finland, Slovakia has been unstoppable, whether winning a wild back-and-forth game with France to make the elimination round (5-4), stunning the favoured Canadians in their rematch (4-3), or getting a virtuoso two-goal performance from 37-year-old Miroslav Satan to prevail over their neighbouring Czech rivals (3-1).
The Slovaks are also drawing inspiration from the memory of former captain Pavol Demitra. He tragically died in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team’s plane crash in September. But memories of this great forward still live on – like the magnificent shootout winner he scored against Russia at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
If the Slovaks can slow down the Russians in the neutral zone, generate timely offence from the likes of Satan, Branko Radivojevic (8 points), and Andrej Sekera (9 points) – an All-Star Team candidate on the blueline – and get some more amazing saves from starting goalie Jan Laco (1.75 GAA and 93.5 save percentage), they just might have a chance. Might.
And Chara, who needs to deliver his best shutdown performance here in Helsinki, will likely log at least as much ice time as he did against the Czechs (26:27) to keep that chance alive.
But, let’s get back to Goliath.
Simply put, the Russians can score like crazy. Scoring leader Yevgeni Malkin is having a tournament for the ages. With 10 goals and eight assists, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar is about to become the first player to lead the IIHF World Championship in scoring and win the NHL’s Art Ross Trophy in the same year since Wayne Gretzky (1982).
Alexander Ovechkin has chipped in a goal per game since entering the lineup for the quarter-finals. Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Popov, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Alexander Syomin...up and down the roster, whether you’re talking KHLers or NHLers, it’s a daunting scenario for the Slovak defence.
“We think we can still play better,” said Datsyuk after the 6-2 semi-final win over Finland.
As the Finns learned in that rout, there isn’t a single Russian unit that can’t find the back of the net. That game saw three power play goals for Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s squad, which is now tops in that department, clicking at 38.7 percent. If the Slovaks spend much time in the box, they may find their second-ranked penalty kill (86.9 percent) bending or breaking.
Russian teams are almost always offensively gifted, but perhaps the biggest tribute to Bilyaletdinov’s tutelage is the way his blueliners have performed in their own zone. Getting good support from the forwards, captain Ilya Nikulin and his mates have contributed to Russia’s total of just 12 goals against. By comparison, the 2009 gold medal-winning team had allowed 16 prior to the finals, while the 2008 team had surrendered 14.
Goalie Semyon Varlamov is one step away from atoning for his 2-1 loss to the Czechs in the 2010 final and elevating his profile as a potential starter in Sochi. His 1.74 GAA and 93.9 save percentage lead the tournament.
Beyond the statistics, there is a rich historical undercurrent to this matchup too.
When Michal Handzus said after beating the Czechs, “It’s not every year that we can get to the finals,” he knew what he was talking about. Handzus and Satan are the only two remaining players from the 2002 Slovak team that captured the country’s only Worlds gold ever versus Russia in Gothenburg, Sweden. The Slovaks haven’t made a final since.
On the Russian roster, the only returnee from 2002 is defenceman Dmitri Kalinin, who hasn’t played since the 7-3 win over Sweden. He was suspended for three games for a nasty cross-check on Tre Kronor’s Johan Franzén, and missed the semi-finals due to illness.
In the rematch, how will these two foes mark the 10th anniversary of that big moment in Slovak hockey history? On paper, regardless of the strides Slovakia has made since the start of the tournament, this year’s Russian team should certainly be favoured to reverse the ‘02 result and capture its first gold since 2009.
But Slovakia will be hoping this David and Goliath tale ends the same way as in the Bible.