STOCKHOLM – If Norway defeats Russia in Thursday’s early Stockholm game, it will be the biggest upset in IIHF World Championship quarter-final history.
Nothing else would come close. It would be the World Championship equivalent of Belarus’s 4-3 win over Sweden in the 2002 Olympic quarter-finals, and allusions to the USA’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union wouldn’t be out of place either.
In Russia, we have not only one of hockey’s longtime superpowers, but also the current top seed in the IIHF World Ranking. This is a team that’s medaled five times out of the last seven World Championships, including back-to-back golds in 2008 and 2009.
As for the Norwegians? This is their second straight quarter-final and third in five years. Coach Roy Johansen’s men lost 8-2 to Canada in 2008 and 4-1 to Finland last year. Norway has never won a medal at this tournament since debuting in 1937 – never mind a quarter-final.
“It’s an inspiring challenge, I would say,” said Norwegian defenceman Mats Trygg. “We’ve done well so far, but we’re not happy. We want to try to go further. Everything is a bonus from now. We’re not the favourites, that’s for sure, so we can just go out, play and have fun.”
Russian fans shouldn’t be rubbing their hands in glee, assuming an automatic easy victory over this up-and-coming Nordic nation.
Yes, Zinetula Bilyaletidinov’s squad has dominated its opponents, posting seven straight wins at the Globe Arena, including a 4-2 victory over Norway on May 6. Finishing up with shutouts against the Czechs and Italy, Russia hasn’t allowed a goal since beating Sweden 7-3 on May 11.
But amazingly, the Norwegians scored six more goals in the round-robin than Russia (33 versus 27). Admittedly, that was largely due to their insane 12-4 explosion against Germany.
Even so, Norway hasn’t played a bad game in this tournament, and in the loss to Russia, the teams were even on the power play, potting two markers apiece. Moreover, it wasn’t Norway’s number one goalie in that game, Lars Haugen; backup Lars Volden got the only start he’s had thus far.
Norway’s ultra-confident offence is firing like it never has before, and it starts with tournament scoring leader Patrick Thoresen (7-9-16). The 28-year-old Hamar native is very comfortable playing against Russians: he’s been one of the KHL’s elite scorers for the past three seasons, first with Salavat Yulaev Ufa, and SKA St. Petersburg last season.
Thoresen has plenty of sharp-shooting company up front in Per-Age Skrøder (4-7-11), Morten Ask (2-7-9), and Mads Hansen (2-6-8). There’s Jonas Holøs on the back end, who is logging a whopping 27 minutes per game and helps drive the offence, too, with two PP goals (4-4-8 overall).
Realistically, though, Russia has far more offensive potential on its side. And considering how the Russians tend to jack up their game late in the tournament, this could be very problematic for Norway.
Yevgeni Malkin has continued the torrid scoring pace he set as the NHL’s Art Ross Trophy winner this season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The monster Russian center has a tournament-leading +13 plus-minus rating to go with his second-place ranking in the points derby (7-7-14), and has been visibly motivated every time he takes a shift here in Stockholm. Malkin’s shown fantastic chemistry with his KHL linemates, Alexander Perezhogin and Alexander Popov.
On top of that, the second Russian unit features another guy who has a well-deserved reputation as a big-game performer: Pavel Datsyuk, the seven-time NHL individual trophy winner and two-time Stanley Cup champion who was named Best Forward at the 2010 Worlds.
Complicating matters for Norway will be the tournament debuts for two Washington Capitals super-talents, Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Syomin. It’s possible they’ll team up with Datsyuk against Norway. Certainly two-time NHL MVP Ovechkin, in particular, has much to prove after failing to get beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Rangers. His presence puts an exclamation mark on what’s an Olympic-caliber forward group.
Despite not producing a ton of offence, Russia’s defencemen have taken care of their own end very nicely so far. The blueline will, however, be minus veteran Dmitri Kalinin, who is serving the last game of his three-game ban for a cross-check on Sweden’s Johan Franzen.
And the Russians have the edge in goal, which isn’t something you can say every year in international hockey. Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche’s save percentage (94.6) is second only to that of Finland’s Petri Vehanen, and his 1.66 GAA is sparkling.
“There's no doubt that it’ll be a very serious game with Norway, complicated,” said Russian assistant coach Valeri Belov, according to the official web site of the Russian Hockey Federation. “We shouldn’t think that the Norwegians will be weaker than the Czechs. All the guys realize this, and we are seriously preparing.”
The Norwegians must avoid turnovers in the neutral zone, since the Russians will gobble those up and capitalize. If Norway maintains good discipline, this game could be closer than expected – similar to the 4-2 Russian win in the round-robin. However, the likelihood is that at some point, Russia’s advantages in skill and speed will become obvious, and Norway won’t be able to keep up.