COLOGNE – Wondering who has the edge on May 23? Here are five reasons why Russia will win today's gold medal game, and five reasons why the Czechs will prevail.
WHY THE RUSSIANS WILL WIN
PURE FIREPOWER: Alexander Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Ilya Kovalchuk. Alexander Semin. And those aren't even all the big names that Russia has brought to fill the net here in Germany. The Russians have tallied a tournament-leading 31 goals so far, and the scary part is that they have yet to explode to their fullest potential.
THE STREAK CONTINUES: The magic number is 28. Heading into today's final, the Russians have won a whopping 27 straight World Championship games, dating back to their 4-1 bronze medal victory over Sweden at the 2007 tournament in Moscow. With that kind of aura around the team, it's tough to bet against the Russians making it 28 straight versus the underdog Czechs.
TO EASE THE PAIN OF VANCOUVER: After their gut-wrenching 7-3 loss in the Olympic quarter-finals to Canada, top Russian stars made a pact to play at the World Championship in Germany, if available, to give their fans something to cheer about this year. Will winning gold in Cologne erase what happened in February? Hardly, even though the Russians knocked the Canadians out with a 5-2 win in the quarterfinals here. But gold would at least put Russia back on top of the IIHF World Ranking with an exclamation point. The Russians need that kind of confidence boost as they build toward hosting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. So their motivation is enormous.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, GOALTENDING: Since the 1984 retirement of the great Vladislav Tretiak, goaltending has historically been Russia's Achilles heel. But last year, Ilya Bryzgalov shone in his nation's 2-1 gold medal win over Canada, and now, Washington Capitals netminder Semyon Varlamov has an opportunity to show he can shut the door versus the Czechs when it counts. Young, athletic, and still getting better, Varlamov's save percentage of 95.7 is second only to that of Germany's Dennis Endras at this tournament. He made clutch saves versus Canada in the quarterfinals, and should be well-rested for today's Czech encounter after Vasili Koshechkin got the start versus Germany.
KNOWING WHAT IT TAKES: Despite a tough outing at the Olympics in February, head coach Slava Bykov has managed to guide his team to the World Championship final for the third straight year, and he expects nothing less than a third straight gold. All but six of his skaters (Sergei Gonchar, Pavel Datsyuk, Nikolai Kulemin, Dmitri Kulikov, Alexei Yemelin, and Artem Anisimov) were members of at least one of the last two championship squads. And clearly, Stanley Cup winners like Gonchar and Datsyuk are used to dealing with pressure. This group should be ready to play.
WHY THE CZECHS WILL WIN
EXPERIENCE IN GOAL: Tomas Vokoun has been there before. In 2005, the star NHL netminder backstopped the Czech Republic to its last IIHF World Championship, making 29 saves in the 3-0 final win over a star-studded Canadian roster that included tournament MVP Joe Thornton and all-star Rick Nash. In contrast, none of Russia's goalies this year has won a World Championship gold medal game for his team.
THE JAGR FACTOR: Jaromir Jagr brings a unique championship pedigree to the Sunday showdown with Russia. The NHL's ninth all-time leading scorer is the only participant who belongs to the IIHF's Triple Gold Club (World Championship gold 2005, Olympic gold 1998, Stanley Cup 1991, 1992). At age 38, he's demonstrated he's still a special player, and will undoubtedly make a contribution if the Czechs come out on top.
PENALTY KILL PROWESS: The defensively savvy Czech Republic has allowed just two power play goals on 34 opportunities at the 2010 tournament, one by Sweden's Johan Harju in Saturday's semi-final, and the other by Canada's Ray Whitney in the 3-2 Czech win that put them through to the elimination round. If they can keep up this rate of effectiveness against a Russian power play that's looked surprisingly uncoordinated at times, gold could be the result.
WATCH OUT FOR THE SHORTIES: Four shorthanded goals in eight games is an eye-popping statistic. That's what the Czechs have recorded so far. Always known for their ability to counterattack, Vladimir Ruzicka's crew might be able to capitalize while killing penalties against the Russians, who are known to take chances at the offensive blueline.
NO PRESSURE: The Czechs came into this tournament in sixth place in the IIHF World Rankings. They haven't won gold in five years, and they haven't won anything since 2006's silver. Lacking big names outside of Jagr and Vokoun, they didn't scare anyone on paper. Their 3-2 losses to Norway and Switzerland increased the impression that this wasn't a squad to be afraid of. And even in the semis versus Sweden, they were eight seconds away from the bronze medal game when Karel Rachunek scored the tying goal to send it to extra time. The Czechs have surprised people by making the final, and now they have nothing to lose.