BRATISLAVA – Russian media was quick to name Ilya Kovalchuk coach Ken Hitchcock’s nightmare after the Russian sniper scored the game winning goal in the 2011 World Championship quarterfinal that Russia won 2-1, just like he did in the 2008 World Championship final in Quebec City when Hitchcock was behind Team Canada’s bench. Well, Canadians, and Hitchcock, may take solace in knowing that Bykov, too, has his share of monsters to deal with at night.
Back in 2007, at the World Championship in Moscow, Russia played Finland in the semi-final. The score was tied, 1-1, after regulation time, and with about five and a half minutes into the ten-minute overtime, Mikko Koivu grabbed a loose puck in the corner, dropped it back to Tuomo Ruutu, and went to the net. Ruutu sent the puck to the net, Koivu lifted Russian goaltender Alexei Yeremenko’s stick and swept the puck into an empty net.
Koivu is back, now as team captain. Ruutu is back, and has six goals in seven games in the tournament. Three other Finns from the Moscow team – Niko Kapanen, Mika Pyörälä, Lasse Kukkonen – are in Bratislava, too.
Nine Russian players from the 2007 team, including Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin, are on the ice tonight.
"I’m not somebody who studies statistics much, and there’s no point in looking back, but of course I have great memories of that game, and the goal, and the team Finland had there,” says Koivu.
One stat that Koivu would be wise to ignore, anyway – if he was a stats guy – is that Finland has never won two consecutive World Championship games against Russia, even when you consider games played in consecutive years. The teams have played two games against each other in the same tournament twice.
In 2002, Finland won the first game 1-0, Russia the other 3-2 after a shootout. In 2007, Finland had lost the first game against Russia 5-4, but won the more important one, the semifinal 4-3 with Koivu’s goal.
“Well, this is a new game, it’s a new year, and a new tournament,” says Koivu.
“We know how Russia plays, thanks to the first game here. We know what to expect when the game starts, but basically, we have to play well as five-man units, our special teams have to work, and we need good goaltending. That's nothing new, that’s what you need to be a good hockey team,” he adds.
Except for goaltending, Koivu will be providing Finland with most of everything. In the seven games in the tournament, Koivu’s 20:37 minutes per game is most ice time of all Team Finland players. While not a traditional playmaking centre, Koivu has racked up six points in the tournament. Of his two goals one was the game-winning goal in a shootout against Germany, the other a deflection in the game against – Russia.
“It didn’t matter to us whether we’d play Russia or Canada. We can’t choose who we’ll play, we’ll just have to try to win,” he says.
The fact that Finland played the early game yesterday, and didn’t have to push all the way to the end, while Russia played the late game against a tough Canada, may give them an edge in the semifinal where every little advantage is welcome and needed.
“It’s fine to play back-to-back games like this, it’s the same for both teams. I have nothing against it, at least I won’t have to think about what to do on an off-day now,” he says.
"Nobody knows what will decide the outcome of the game, we’ll just have to wait and see which way the game will go and what the night will bring,” he adds.