QUEBEC CITY – Top NHL and Superliga stars were flying as Russia surged into Sunday’s gold medal game with a 4-0 semi-final win over Finland at the Colisée.
Facing the winner of Canada-Sweden, Russia will vie for its first World Championship title since 1993. It last played for gold in 2002, losing 4-3 to Slovakia.
“Our players played a very disciplined, organized game,” said Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov. “That got us into the final.”
Sergei Fedorov, Danis Zaripov, Alexei Morozov, and Maxim Sushinsky scored for Russia. Sergei Zinoviev added two assists.
The Finns, who so often start well and finish sadly, will seek their third straight World Championship medal in Saturday’s third-place game. They claimed silver last year and bronze in 2006.
In perhaps its best outing of the tournament, Russia performed with skill, opportunism, and solid defence, scoring in each period. Finland, which took two penalties for too many men on the ice, didn’t seem to have its legs or to be mentally ready to play.
“Russia capitalized on a couple of mistakes in the first two periods and played a really strong defensive game,” said Saku Koivu.
It was sweet revenge for Russia, which lost 2-1 to Finland in overtime in the 2007 semi-final in Moscow.
“Last year we made a couple of mistakes and we didn’t win the gold medal,” said Alexander Ovechkin. “This year, we didn’t want to make the same mistakes.”
Evgeni Nabokov made 23 saves for his second straight shutout. Niklas Backstrom had the same number for Finland.
“When I read [Nabokov was joining Team Russia], I was very disappointed because I knew that could be the difference for them,” said Finnish coach Doug Shedden. “I don’t know how many tough saves he had today, but their goaltending is head and shoulders better than it was before.”
Both teams looked nervous early on. The 11,159-strong crowd, a mix of blue, red, and yellow (Swedish) jerseys, tried to fire them up with overlapping chants of “Rossiya!” and “Suomi!”
Russia opened the scoring at 13:41, as the “Washington line” busted out of its own zone and Fedorov converted a slick 3-on-1 passing play from Ovechkin and Alexander Semin over Backstrom’s right pad.
Tuomo Ruutu’s aggressive forechecking behind the Russian net during a power play got the puck out front to an unguarded Jussi Jokinen for Finland’s best chance of the period, but Nabokov stared him down.
For this game, Russia reunited the “Kazan troika” of Morozov, Zaripov, and Zinoviev. That line took just 3:44 into the second period to capitalize on another three-way passing play for a 2-0 lead. On the rush, they picked apart the Finnish defence, as Andrei Markov fed Zaripov in the faceoff circle to Backstrom’s left, and he whipped it into the open side of the net.
With pressure in the Russian zone midway through the game, Finland had a glorious chance to get on the board, but Nabokov collapsed into the splits in front of Mikko Koivu and stopped the puck with his pants.
Although the first two periods were played at the pace of a mid-winter hike across the Siberian taiga, the Finns came out with a slightly higher tempo to start the third.
A minute in, Ruutu rushed to the net, fell, and slid into Nabokov, causing an anxious moment for Russian fans. Seconds later, Semin got crushed behind the Finnish net and got attention from the trainer, and Anssi Salmela went off for boarding. But the Finns needed goals, and Nabokov looked utterly composed every time they got a chance.
The Finns lost what little momentum they had after taking consecutive too-many-men penalties around the midpoint of the third.
With 17 seconds left in the second minor, Morozov whipped a shot from the right faceoff circle under Backstrom’s arm to make it 3-0 at 52:15 and wipe out Finland’s hopes.
The Finns pulled their goalie with under three minutes remaining as the Russians repeatedly iced the puck. Maxim Sushinsky added an empty-netter with 2:04 left. Chants of “Rossiya!” filled the air as Russia finished the game on the power play due to an Olli Jokinen high-sticking minor.
For Russia, Alexander Radulov took the place of Ilya Kovalchuk, who was suspended for this game after a dirty hit on Switzerland’s Julien Vauclair in the quarter-finals.
Asked about the possibility of meeting Canada in the final, Bykov said: “It’s definitely a dream for both teams.”
Today’s loss ends hopes that Doug Shedden would lead Finland to gold in his native Canada, as Jukka Jalonen will take over the reins as head coach for the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland.
“All you can do is get these guys ready for the next game and be proud of how hard they worked for you,” said Shedden.