HELSINKI – It’s just like old times: Russia is back on top of the hockey world. Unbeaten from wire to wire, Russia got a dominating performance from its NHL superstars to defeat underdog Slovakia 6-2 in Sunday’s gold medal game at Hartwall Arena.
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It was the Russians' first gold since Switzerland 2009. Reflecting their renewed hockey superpower status, they became the first champions to win all their games in regulation since the 1989 Soviets, who also won 10 straight.
This is arguably the strongest outing by any senior-level Russian national team since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia now boasts 26 gold medals all-time, four in the post-USSR era.
Alexander Syomin shone with a pair of goals and an assist. Linemate Pavel Datsyuk added a goal and two assists, while Alexander Ovechkin, the other member of this all-NHL troika, had two helpers. Tournament scoring leader Yevgeni Malkin, who was also named Best Forward and MVP, also tallied for Russia, along with Alexander Perezhogin and Alexei Tereshenko.
"As soon as the whistle went to start the game, we believed we could win," said Datsyuk.
Zdeno Chara, the Norris Trophy-winning defenceman who was deservedly named a 2012 tournament all-star, scored twice for Slovakia.
"We were disappointed to lose the game, but not in how we finished the tournament," said Chara. "It's a privilege to play in the final and I tried to tell the guys to enjoy the moment. You never know when you get a chance to do that again."
The Russians won their third world title in the last five years. The last team to do that was Canada (2003, 2004, 2007). Russia and the Soviet Union now combine for 26 World Championships.
The golden Russians have sealed their spot atop the 2012 IIHF World Rankings, and also wrapped up the top seeding for the 2014 Olympics on home ice in Sochi. The triumph puts head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov on the fast track to take the reins at what will be the most prestigious event in Russian winter sports history.
"We were prepared for the final game," said Bilyaletdinov. "I reminded my team that the Slovak team is very strong. It won against the Czechs, against Canada. We played really well throughout the whole championship."
"The coach is really important for us," said Ovechkin. "The whole atmosphere, the whole system. Everybody understood what we have to do to win. Everybody likes him and plays with heart. He's the best coach in Russia right now. I'm really proud to play for him."
"It was a good tournament for us," said Nikolai Kulyomin. "We played like a team, every game, every shift."
The Slovaks, who saw their Cinderella run come to an abrupt end, put in a valiant effort. But they simply couldn’t keep up with a Russian squad that worked just as hard, but had superior skill and the ability to capitalize ruthlessly on mistakes.
Malkin finished with 19 points, becoming the first Art Ross Trophy winner to top the Worlds points derby in the same season since Wayne Gretzky (1982). (Malkin tallied 109 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season.) This was his first gold medal in seven senior-level IIHF tournaments (five Worlds, two Olympics).
Russian starting goalie Semyon Varlamov was solid as Russia outshot Slovakia 42-31. "I learned a lot from this tournament, but it was my second championship," Varlamov said. "Right now, we have the gold medal, and I feel good."
The Slovaks fell short in their bid for their first World Championship title since Sweden 2002, the only time they've won this tournament. (That final victory, 4-3, came at Russia's expense.)
Nonetheless, silver is a tremendous accomplishment for a nation that entered the tournament seeded tenth in the IIHF World Ranking and finished tenth on home ice last year. Slovakia hadn’t captured a medal since 2003’s bronze.
"All the players had a fantastic performance at this tournament," said head coach Vladimir Vujtek. "Slovakia had to wait nine years to win a medal."
"It's a big day for Slovak hockey, and we can be proud," said forward Mario Bliznak. "Without big stars we showed heart, so the future looks good."
Miroslav Satan now becomes the first Slovak player to own four IIHF World Championship medals (silver 2000, gold 2002, bronze 2003, silver 2012).
Slovakia couldn’t have asked for a better start to this game.
Seconds after Ovechkin took a run at Chara (reminiscent of their battles in the recent Washington-Boston series), the huge Slovak blueliner opened the scoring on a blast from the right point at 1:06. Chara’s slapshot was clocked at a record-setting 175 kilometres an hour (108.8 miles) at the 2012 NHL All-Star game, and he got plenty on this one, which sailed past Ovechkin and beat Varlamov high on the blocker side.
"It was early in the game, and we knew it wouldn't be enough," Chara said.
Near the halfway mark of the period, Russian captain Ilya Nikulin spotted Malkin open to the left of Slovak netminder Jan Laco, and defenceman Ivan Baranka made a tremendous play, blocking Malkin’s shot with his stick.
The Russians tied it at 9:57 on the rush, with Ovechkin making amends for his earlier miscue. Taking a pass from Datsyuk, Ovechkin exploded into the Slovak zone on left wing and threw a beautiful backhand pass through the legs of Rene Vydareny on to the stick of Syomin, who zipped it in through Laco’s five-hole.
The Russians went up 2-1 at 6:10 of the second period, when Alexander Popov cut to the net from behind the goal line and Laco sprawled to poke the puck away from him, leaving Perezhogin to backhand it into the gaping cage. The combined bulk of Chara and Tomas Surovy on the goal line couldn’t keep it out.
At 13:31, Russia made it 3-1 with a vintage, old Soviet-style passing play. Capitalizing on a turnover inside the Slovak blueline, Nikita Zherdev sent the puck cross-ice to Tereshenko, who then worked a give-and-go perfectly with Sergei Shirokov before sliding it inside Laco’s right post.
The Russian fans among the 13,242 in attendance exulted, chanting “Rossiya!” to the beat of the goal-celebration song, KISS’s 1980’s hit “Heaven’s On Fire”.
Turnovers continued to plague Slovakia. Datsyuk, the NHL’s king of takeaways, stripped Baranka inside the blueline and found Syomin all alone in front of Laco. Syomin made no mistake, feinting before whipping the puck into the top corner on his forehand at 15:22.
The NHL line struck again to make it 5-1 at 3:55 of the third, with Datsyuk beating Laco five-hole on a Gretzky-like set-up from behind the net by Syomin. There was no hope of a Slovak comeback anymore, even though they tried to shake things up by pulling Laco in favour of backup Peter Hamerlik.
Even when Chara pinched in to beat Varlamov from close range at 9:37, with Ovechkin serving Russia’s first penalty for a slash, it was just a chance for the Slovak fans to cheer a bit more for their team, whose urgency commendably didn’t slacken despite their dire situation.
Malkin put an exclamation point on Russia's victory when he barged in over the blueline and hammered a slapshot past Hamerlik to make it 6-2 with 1:57 left.
"We fought hard, but they were just better," said Slovakia's Michal Sersen of the Russians. "They didn't let us do anything."
"We played very hard the whole tournament and we have no regrets," said Chara.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Russians leaped over the boards, shedding their sticks and gloves and bounced up and down in a joyful embrace that dislodged Varlamov's net. Moments later, the team grabbed Bilyaletdinov next to their bench and exultantly tossed him up in the air and caught him several times.
"It's hard to win the Stanley Cup every year," said Datsyuk. "My Cup is that we won gold here."
During the silver medal presentation, Chara donned a special jersey that bore the name and number 38 of Pavol Demitra. The great Slovak forward, who captained the national team in 2011 in Bratislava, passed away last year in the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash. Bilyaletdinov mentioned at the post-game press conference that his team's victory was dedicated to the victims of that incident.
The Russians accepted their gold medals from Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak, who beamingly hugged each of his players. They posed for a jubilant team photo before belting out their national anthem and doing a victory lap with the World Championship trophy, led by Ovechkin and Syomin, who flourished a huge Russian flag. The Slovaks took time to circle the ice too, clapping for their fans.
With the result, Russia’s all-time record against Slovakia at this tournament dating back to 1996 improved to six wins, three ties and three losses.
The Russians will kick off their defence of their title at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in May 2013. With the tournament co-hosted again by Finland and Sweden, Slovakia and Russia will play their round-robin games in Helsinki and aim to make the finals in Stockholm.